Nearly every frame of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is bursting with inventiveness and visual delight, infused with a Steampunk-Gothic sensibility; but if ever there was a movie doomed to struggle to find an audience, this is it. Renamed from the novel that it’s based upon, The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart, the picture seems to have, at least in this country, been marketed squarely at a family audience. Audience, meet our marketing “expert,” Miss Guided: because in no way is this a cheery cozy little family movie, unless we mean The Addams Family, who would chortle through the opening scenes as a baby is swiftly yanked out of its mother’s womb, then thrown into a table vise and cut open so that its frozen, dead heart can be replaced with a cuckoo clock. However, even the Addamses would be likely to squirm over the wispy, thin-as-air Love Story that barely sustains the rest of the movie: think of trying to inflate an inner tube with a hand air pump, and you’ll get a good idea of how the thing is shaped.
It’s not helped by the songs, if you can call them that, made up as they are of tunes that meander haplessly and lyrics that awkwardly explain the plot and don’t even rhyme. Almost the first words in the movie are the main character “singing” about the circumstances of his birth, and it wasn’t more than a couple of lines before I was thinking “Oh stop it, just stop it!” I can’t help but feel that Jack would have been better served by the eerie song-workings of Emilie Autumn; as it was, when the movie drew to a close the refrain stuck in my head was not anything from the film, but the methodical clanking and clunking of Ms. Autumn’s “Four O’Clock.”
But Oh My Goodness, it is gorgeous. In a way, it would make a better picture book than it does a movie, because while the imagery is nothing short of astonishing, nothing holds still long enough for you to get a really good look at it. I don’t have much desire to sit through the whole movie again anytime soon, but I would definitely go back and just freeze-frame some of the sequences. There are supporting characters with xylophones on their backs, others with wings, others who are all head and no body. There are vistas that unfold like the pages of a pop-up book. There are trains with accordion cars that expand and contract as they flow over the rails. There are lovingly re-imagined Georges Melies movies within the movie; there’s a girl that sprouts nettles and the fantastical carnival town in which she lives.
What it doesn’t have is enough meat on its lovely bones. “Don’t fall in love,” the boy’s adopted mother warns him — if you do, your cuckoo-clock heart will explode and you will die.
So what’s the first thing the boy does? Right, of course. He falls in love and dies with love’s first kiss. End of movie. It’s a lovely concept, but Chuck Jones would have done it in seven minutes.