Mashing up Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale of the same name with snatches of Tchaikovsky’s music and old-school, frame-by-frame puppet animation, Russian feature “The Ugly Duckling” is a raggedy if endearing creature with a fancy pedigree. A labor of love for writer-helmer-producer-animator Garri Bardin that took six years to finish, pic sneaks in a bit of satire under the kidpic radar, but is too repetitive and lacking in technical polish to fly far beyond the fest circuit.
Bardin’s screenplay cleaves only to the barest bones of Andersen’s favorite of his own stories, but is nevertheless more faithful to the tale’s 19th-century spirit than some of the much freer adaptations that have been hatched over the years.
Using a mix of plasticine modeling clay and real feathers, Bardin has his protagonist break out of his shell in a poultry enclosure where an assortment of chickens, ducks and geese live huddled together, bickering like Soviet-era Russians in an old-fashioned apartment block. Found first while still inside his egg by a pair of chickens, the “duckling” (who, as every reader of the original tale knows, ain’t no duck) is soon rejected by the community for his ungainly appearance.
Repeatedly chucked over the fence, our feathered hero never gives up hope of being accepted. After each snub, he sings a song of despair and longing set to a famous passage from “Swan Lake,” a gag that’s funny the first two times it’s done, and increasingly tiresome the third and fourth time.
When the birds stage a military parade that’s overseen by the coop’s leader, a staggering turkey who can barely stand up, it’s clear some kind of spoof of Boris Yeltsin is at play, but Bardin doesn’t quite opt for full-on satire. As so many recent cartoons have shown, there’s a way to mix juvenile- and adult-skewed humor, but “Duckling” doesn’t pull off the feat, and ends up feeling indistinct about what auds it might be intended for.
Pic’s grubby earth-tone palette won’t appeal to ankle-biters, either. Animation looks jerky, which gives the pic a sweetly handmade feel, but will further limit commercial prospects.