TR Review: Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart Gets No Merci in the Translation


You could be forgiven for watching Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, an animated film that feels like an Edward Scissorhands/Hugo mash-up with fairly big plotholes, and thinking something must have been lost in translation. Because if you’re watching it in English, something was.

What you won’t be told – because the details wouldn’t mean much to a stateside audience – is that the movie is based on a rock concept album by French band Dionysos. As such, the story follows the songs, the songs don’t necessarily fill in the narrative gaps, and the characters are operatic archetypes rather than real characters making rational decisions. Knowing this goes a long way towards helping the viewer appreciate the film for what it is, rather than coming out disappointed for what it was never trying to be.

French pop music has a reputation that’s roughly akin to the one enjoyed by French hygiene, but judging strictly from this soundtrack, Dionysos goes back and forth between generic rock and peppy, poppy ballads that serve the story a bit better. The instrumental soundtrack, while utterly anachronistic, is jaunty stuff that keeps things flowing.

But is it fair to judge by this soundtrack? Forcing the songs into English and making them rhyme is a bit of a contortionist’s act. Here’s the movie’s best song in French:

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart music video by itsartmag

Note the way it rhymes “coquette,” “lunettes,” and “tete.” In English, rather than rhyme the bigger words, we get “might,” “height,” and so on. There may also be cultural context missing – in the dubbed version, it sounds downright weird for a ten year-old boy to be telling a girl he wants to rip of her clothes with his teeth and tear them into confetti. That said, I presume the vocal beat-boxing by the villainous Joe is the same in both languages, and it is most amusing.

Protagonist Jack is, like so many goth heroes, a boy too fragile for this world, born with a frozen heart that was replaced with a cuckoo clock, and ordered never to lose his temper or fall in love. Of course he falls in love the first time he ever sees a girl, in the musical number above – the nearly blind Miss Acacia, an aspiring Flamenco dancer (it should be noted that she gets two songs in Spanish that play better than any of the dubs). Jack goes to school to learn about love, but is bullied by Miss Acacia’s ex, Joe, who’s like Edgar Allan Poe crossed with Edward Cullen. When the girl leaves for continental Europe (we have apparently been in Scotland this whole time, though it’s such a fantasized realm this barely matters), Jack follows her to the creepy, freak-filled circus where she makes her living. Along the way he is stalked by Jack the Ripper for no particular reason, and befriends cinema pioneer Georges Melies, who becomes a key ally.

The train journeys are the best sequences, by far – the train carriages are connected by accordion folds and play music as they speed through landscapes that, Little Big Planet style, use CG animation to approximate cardboard and cloth cut-outs and pop-ups hanging by strings. The addition of Melies as a character also allows for some gratuitous “old timey film” sequences, laden of course with references to the director’s actual works.

The concept album problem only becomes a major issue once the plot seeks resolution. Jack and Miss Acacia are initially kept apart by the stupidest of contrivances (she doesn’t recognize him and he somehow can’t tell her), and once their love is expressed, she turns on him for the flimsiest of reasons. Giving the biggest benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming there simply wasn’t a song on the album that covered this part, or if there was, it had the broadest of strokes and lacked all specifics. Though the story’s incredibly vague ending has me thinking the last track on the album can’t have been much.

Animation fans will find much to enjoy – the onscreen characters look like porcelain dolls, and the circus’ all-out departure from reality will make you wish such a place could exist. Those who nitpick at logic will find so many threads to pull apart that they’ll be as cold as Jack by the end – “dream logic” is in full effect here, more Graffiti Bridge than Purple Rain.

I’d like to see a band I’m already a fan of try something like this. Metallica: through the Never doesn’t quite count.

Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart opens in limited theatrical release today; the Blu-ray due out Oct. 30th will supposedly include the French audio, but the DVD does not.