A boy born on the coldest day on Earth survives only by the grace of a magical ticker in “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart,” a Steampunk rock musical reverse-engineered from an album by French band Dionysos and the popular tie-in book written by its frontman, Mathias Malzieu. Co-directed by Malzieu and musicvideo helmer Stephane Berla, this charming yet oddly miscalibrated computer-animated fairy tale combines gothic, Tim Burton-esque elements with a younger-skewing porcelain-doll look, confusing auds as to who’s being targeted exactly. The answer: no one in particular, as Malzieu seems to be making this idiosyncratic, overly precious film mostly for himself.
After saving infant Jack’s life by installing a mechanical apparatus where his frozen heart had been, a well-meaning witch makes clear that he must closely follow three rules or risk irreparably damaging the high-maintenance thingamabob that’s keeping him alive. First, Jack should never touch the hands of his heart. Second, he must keep his temper under control. Third, and most important, he can never, ever fall in love — no small task for Jack (voiced by Orlando Seale), who’s eager to experience the world, and who meets the nearsighted and similarly cursed Miss Acacia (Samantha Barks, whose character sprouts thorns whenever threatened) on his first trip to town.
This seems a fine enough place to begin a Scotland-set, Victorian-era fairy tale, and yet, unique as certain details might be — including the vaguely macabre sight of frozen birds dropping from the sky mid-flight, or another of the witch’s patients, who had his rickety spine replaced with a xylophone — there’s something disappointingly de facto about the setup. It’s as if Malzieu had invented both Jack and his cuckoo-clock heart from slightly rusty parts and, obvious poetic temperament aside, somehow lacked the imagination to fashion a truly original magical romance.
One can’t help being reminded of Neil Gaiman, a writer considerably more gifted at spinning such tropes into dark and distinctive new form. Malzieu would have done well to study his tricks, rather than so obviously recycling from other sources. (How else to explain the Johnny Depp-like resemblance of a character like Joe, or his weak role as the schoolyard villain?) But rather than linger on the project’s shortcomings, which only disappoint relative to the story’s incredible creative potential, it should be said that in partnership with Berla, Malzieu has created a fully realized, wildly imaginative storybook world and populated it with eccentric characters.
In one scene, we find Jack trying to outrun a dagger-tossing villain on a train whose cars expand and contract like the bellows of an accordion. In another, the soft-spoken, bobble-headed hero befriends none other than moving-picture magician Georges Melies (recently the subject of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”), planting the seed for a later journey to the moon. And where should he discover Miss Acacia but dancing flamenco in a carnival that looks equally inspired by Fellini, Tod Browning’s “Freaks” and (perhaps) the surrealist paintings of Los Angeles tattooist-turned-fine artist Lola?
Although the filmmakers have prepared both French and English versions (with a couple of Spanish musical numbers appearing in each), Malzieu’s intricate-to-dense, wordplay-heavy script might actually have benefited from a foreign-language release in the States. That might conceivably boost the exoticism of the toon’s already niche appeal, while giving outsider teen auds — the type who wear “Cats” T-shirts and/or heavy black eyeliner to school — a cultural hook to cling to. Translated into English, the songs remain alluringly moody, but are undermined a bit by simplistic rhyme schemes and weird word choices.