A lost teddy bear gets mixed up in a quasi-“Animal Farm” power struggle among gnarly forest flora and fauna in “Kooky,” a sweetly old-fashioned celebration of childhood imagination from Czech helmer-writer Jan Sverak (“Kolya”). Cutting between a framing story with live actors and deliberately low-tech, labor-intensive puppet animation, pic plays like “The Wind in the Willows” meets the early work of Jan Svankmajer. As family entertainment, it’s a bit too repetitious to engage adults throughout, but they’re more likely than younger viewers to appreciate the level of craft involved. Offshore, pic might escape the fest ghetto through a forthcoming English-dubbed version.
Playing more with his stuffed toys than with other boys, 6-year-old asthmatic Ondra (Ondrej Sverak, director Sverak’s gravely handsome young son, proving he’s a natural) converses with them as if they were alive. After he reluctantly agrees to let his mother (Kristyna Fuitova-Novakova) discard his favorite, Kooky, a scruffy red sawdust-filled bear, he begins to obsess over Kooky’s fate.
The puppet action begins as Ondra imagines Kooky (voiced by Ondrej Sverak) escaping from a massive garbage dump, dotted with the broken remains of abandoned toys. Trying to make his way home, Kooky is pursued by two twisted (in more ways than one) plastic bottles, “the bagmen” (voiced by Petr Ctvrtnicek and Jiri Labus), and loses his way in a magical forest full of mysterious creatures he’d never dreamed of when at home in Ondra’s bed.
The forest is ruled by the Guardian, the wise but near-sighted Captain Goddam (voiced by Zdenek Sverak, the helmer’s father), who resembles a root vegetable and serves in loco grandparentis to Kooky. At the same time, the Captain finds his longtime authority challenged by the evil Nusha (voiced by Jiri Machacek), a nutshell on sticks with piranha-like teeth, who incites the other forest creatures against him.
As director Sverak cuts between Kooky’s adventures with the Captain (which involve a few too many car chases) and the ailing Ondra, both bear and boy learn important life lessons. Much of the well-delivered, often humorous dialogue will strike a nostalgic chord with anyone who has ever had or been around young children.
Still, pic’s greatest achievement is its remarkable production design. Scenes with the unusual-looking hand-operated puppets were filmed on elaborate miniature sets in real locations, and occasionally incorporate live animals.
Still screening in Czech theaters, “Kooky” attracted approximately 175,000 viewers in seven weeks, a respectable total, but much smaller than the million-plus ducats sold for Sverak’s previous films.