Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is at once enabled and hindered by its utter strangeness, an intrinsic quality surely exacerbated in its English-language release. This quasi-gothic musical originated as an illustrated book, La Mécanique du Cœur, written by co-director Mathias Malzieu, who also, in the interim, adapted it into a rock opera with his band Dionysos, which has in turn recorded the music here. Alas, the film’s extravagant animation and art-rock soundtrack aren’t helped by the English translation, written by Malzieu, who also frequently performs in both English and French. Yet, even under his guidance, the effect is strained and jarring, and considering the audience this kind of film would attract in the first place, the marketing value of such a choice seems dubious at best. From the out-of-sync lip movements to an overwhelming busy atmosphere that often feels thrown off its tracks by awkward rhymes and word choices, it’s an unfortunate decision that tends to break an otherwise gentle spell.
Beginning with a sequence of roller coaster-like movement from the point of view of a doomed bird that seems lifted from Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express, this Luc Besson-produced fairy tale aims for spectacle at every turn, its self-conscious, steampunk theatricality reinforced by the (otherwise almost entirely unnecessary) presence of Georges Méliès (Stéphan Cornicard) among its cast of characters. The director acts as a guide for Jack (Orlando Seale), who was raised from birth by a midwife with a knack for the magical, and who replaced his defective heart with the titular contraption; the unfortunate catch with this life-saver being that his springs and gears won’t be able to handle the pressure of falling in love. This limitation, of course, doesn’t deter the young Jack from exploring the world around him, winning friends and enemies in the process, and meeting a special, tragically nearsighted girl in the process.
The world of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is replete with bizarre imagery and happenings unacknowledged by the characters (save for Jack’s makeshift heart, which, all things considered, is of a piece with its surroundings), from the personification of just about anything to characters literally levitating if the mood so suits them. This anything-goes approach often feels overthought and disjointed, but if you can get past the vice-utilizing open-heart surgery performed on a newborn Jack in the opening scenes, little else will surprise you. The film frequently feels belabored, but in confronting sacrifice and mortality without softening any of their blows, it scratches onerously at the heart and mind.