‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’: French steampunk animation enchants

How best to consider this French animated feature: “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart“? Is it a stand-alone animated feature? Is it an album music video that takes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” forward?

“Thriller” was just one song. This is basically an album that tells a story written by the lead musician of the group who provides the music.

If you get the DVD/Blu-ray version, you’ll get the chance to listen to the original French lyrics and you wish the lyrics had remained in French, the native language of Mathias Malzieu. Malzieu has written a few books and this animated feature is based on his 2007 book: La mécanique du cœurAlthough this is translated as “The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart,” I think a more direct translation might be “The Mechanics of the Heart.”

Malzieu belongs to a French band called Dionysos, which is French for the Greek Dionysus, the god of rape, winemaking and wine as well as ritual madness. Formed in 1993 in Valence, Drome, they perform songs in French and English. What kind of group takes such a name. One bent on a bit of theatricality. I suspect this band which has released six studio albums would be at home in at the San Francisco Edwardian Ball (that is Edward as in Gorey and not the British king).

The 3D animation seems choppy like stop-motion and the faces are pale with large eyes and sometimes oversized hair. The boy of the title, Jack,  was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1874–during Victoria’s reign. But it was the coldest day in history and poor Jack’s baby heart freezes. To save him, the midwife replaces his heart with a cuckoo clock. Yet a cuckoo clock can’t replace a real heart–it’s not strong enough to withstand anger or the excitement of love.

Jack is adopted by the midwife and she warns him never to touch the hands of his clock, never to get angry and never to fall in love. Although she protects him by schooling him at home, Jack does go out into the town and, slipping away from his adoptive mother, he finds love with a myopic gypsy girl, Miss Acacia. She vanishes and with his limited contact with the outside world, a wistful Jack grows anxious. He finally cajoles her into letting him attend a school with other kids, but a boy with a cuckoo clock for a heart, who can’t run, who can’t get angry is going to be the target of a bully.

Miss Acacia is also beloved by the bully. She has a fondness for red roses and when her emotional state is agitated, she grows thorns which might be from the roses or from the acacia trees (which outside of Australia are quite thorny, but considered medicinal as well). Can Miss Acacia cure Jack’s problems? As Jack goes on his search to find his true, love, he meets up with the French illusionist and filmmaker George Méliès. You can always get romantic advice from the French. Together they find Miss Acacia in a circus that is part Cirque du Soleil and part Fellini. 

Of course, Jack must choose between life and love. This doesn’t end happily, but die-hard romantics will be touched by this tender love story.

The voices all sound older than the stated ages but the kids grow up and keep the same voices. This doesn’t really bother me.  This featured is directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu and some of the imagery will inspired steampunk fans–expect to see cuckoo-clocks and xylophones in costumes in the near future. .

The music does from time to time play in my head so I’m inclined to consider the tunes as an important part of this package for “Jack and the Cuckoo-Cluck Heart,” and this kind of animated feature and even the band would fit in with just the right crowd–steampunk and goth, anime junkies and romantics. I would have preferred to have subtitles than the English dubbing and the French lyrics might have sounded better, at least to American ears, than the English translation. In my mind, I imagine the best possible experience would be to see the the band playing and singing the original French lyrics as this animated feature is screened behind them.


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