'Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart' beats with imagination

Review: 'Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart' is an animated film with a weak story but striking visuals

"Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart" continues the recent string of European filmmakers producing small but interesting animated films for a fraction of the cost of a U.S. production. "Cuckoo-Clock" never reaches the level of "The Secret of Kells" or "Ernest & Celestine," but it offers some handsome, imaginative visuals.

Co-director Mathias Malzieu adapted the script from his fey novel "La Mécanique du Coeur." Jack (voiced by Orlando Seale, sounding older than the character is supposed to be) is born on the coldest day in the world in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1874. When his heart freezes, Dr. Madeline (Barbara Scaff) implants a tiny cuckoo clock to keep it beating. As he grows older, she warns him that he must never touch the hands of the clock, lose his temper or fall in love; any of those actions could fatally damage the mechanism.

As an adolescent, Jack meets Miss Acacia (Samantha Barks), a tiny, nearsighted Flamenco singer and dancer. He pursues her to Spain's Andalusia with the aid of pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès (Stephane Cornicard), where Jack launches an awkward courtship at the Extraordinarium, a surreal amusement park.

The influence of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" is evident in the designs of the characters, with their skinny limbs, wide-eyed faces and outsized hairdos. The films of Tim Burton and "Coraline" director Henry Selick clearly shaped the style of the animation, which often feels more like stop-motion than CG. Two striking sequences that resemble cut and folded paper and a pseudo-Méliès film within the film involving carved wood puppets offer welcome alternatives to the conventional realism of so many CG releases.

The storytelling, however, lags far behind the visual imagination. Malzieu's dialogue too often restates the obvious, with the characters proclaiming what the audience already knows. The English lyrics to Malzieu's unnecessary songs are burdened with stretched rhymes and trite images. (Frustrated, Jack sings, "I'm out of whack / My mind is cracked.") Too often Malzieu and co-director Stéphane Berla succumb to the temptation to move the camera needlessly in drawn-out rotations and clichéd roller-coaster rides.

"Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart" stubbornly remains less than the sum of its parts. But its rich visual imagery suggests the talented artists involved could create something exciting and truly original if they had a better script.

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