A virtuoso feat of puppeteering, otherworldly fable "Strings" marks a bold swerve toward fantasy for helmer Anders Ronnow Klarlund. Wooden thesps are living puppets, jostling for control of a kingdom after a monarch's suicide. Enthusiastic Lido reception would suggest a healthy fest career ahead for strikingly designed pic.

A virtuoso feat of puppeteering, otherworldly fable “Strings” marks a bold swerve toward fantasy for helmer Anders Ronnow Klarlund, whose previous outings, “The Eighteenth” and “Possessed,” had occult tinges but entirely flesh-and-blood casts. Klarlund’s wooden thesps are living puppets, jostling for control of a kingdom after a monarch’s suicide. Though enthusiastic Lido reception would suggest a healthy fest career ahead for strikingly designed pic, commercial prospects may have strings attached, as mature themes may limit appeal to older auds rather than families, as with recent toon “The Triplets of Belleville.”

Essence of movie’s weirdness lies in its initial conceit. Unlike, say, the original “Thunderbirds” TV series, the puppets of “Strings” are not meant to be standing in for people, but rep a timber-and-stone race that acknowledges the ropes leading out of their bodies into infinity and carve their own children out of wood. Beyond this initial setup, the story has the stripped-down simplicity of a fairy tale.

The old emperor of Hebelon commits suicide so son Hal (a nod to Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”) can ascend to the throne. But Hal’s scheming uncle Nezo and his henchman Ghrak tell Hal his father has been killed by the Zeriths, nomadic warriors who had their homeland usurped by the denizens of Hebelon, in order to send him on a suicide mission to avenge his dad, leaving Nezo clear to take the throne. General Erito accompanies Hal, only to betray him like the woodsman in the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.”

Meanwhile, Hal’s sis Jhinna stays in Hebelon, where Ghrak pitches a nasty kind of woo, threatening to have her ravished by his cadre of slaves. It’s this sort of stuff that may earn pic a PG or equivalent certificate in territories with more qualms about exposing children to adult themes. There’s even some none-too-subtle offscreen sex between Hal and Zerith love interest Zita, symbolized amusingly by a pan up to show their strings tangling.

The use of puppetry emerges not just as revival of an old-fashioned technique for its own sake but as the ingenious visualization of the pic’s New Agey, quasitranscendentalist moral that everyone is connected, in this case literally so. English voice actors in projection caught deliver lines with perhaps a touch too much solemnity, but voices could easily be recast for other markets.

Still, pic will be a tough sell to auds worldwide, since it’s not quite strange enough to appeal to hardcore arthouse auds who savor the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the like, but neither is it cutesy enough to cross over to the mainstream.

Production design inventively works around the string issue, so that every set has an open roof and the gate of Hebelon’s castle need consist of nothing more than a bar that can be lowered to step over or raised to block egress. Lighting is dramatic, inclining toward the gloomy.

Bernd Ogodnik and his team of puppeteers animate the characters with extraordinary grace and skill, suggesting feeling simply through posture and movement to compensate for the puppets’ lack of facial expression.

Strings

Denmark-U.K.-Sweden-Norway

Production

A Bald Film, Zentropa, Nordisk Film AS, Sandrew Metronome Denmark, Radar Film (Denmark), Film & Music Entertainment (U.K.), Bobfilm Sweden, Mainstream (Sweden) production, in association with Danish Film Institute, Danish National Television, Nordic Film & TV Fund, Norwegian Film Fond, Norwegian National Television (Norway), Swedish Film Institute, Swedish National Television. (International sales: Trust Film, Copenhagen.) Produced by Niels Bald. Executive producer, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Directed by Anders Ronnow Klarlund. Screenplay, Naja Maria Aidt, Klarlund.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, 16mm -to-35mm) Kim Hattesen, Jan Weincke; editor, Leif Axel Kjeldsen; music, Jorgen Lauritsen; production designer, Sven Wichmann; art director, David Drachmann; costume designer, Ingrid Soe; sound (Dolby SRD), Hans Moller; master puppeteer, Bernd Ogodnik; master puppet builder, Joakim Zacho Weylandt. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Sept. 4, 2004. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, Julian Glover, Derek Jacobi, Ian Hart, Claire Skinner, David Harewood, Samantha Bond. (English dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more