Parky At the Pictures (11/8/2023)
(Summer holiday special reviews of Puffin Rock and the New Friends; Just Super; and Katak: The Brave Beluga)
PUFFIN ROCK AND THE NEW FRIENDS.
After 26 episodes for television, Puffin Rock comes to the big screen in the form of Puffin Rock and the New Friends. The excellence of the animation is to be expected, given that it reunites Derry's Dog Ears company with Cartoon Saloon, the Kilkenny-based studio behind the Tomm Moore trilogy of The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014), and Wolfwalkers (2020), as well as Nora Twomey's The Breadwinner (2017). But this instant family favourite also benefits from the return of Chris O'Dowd as the avuncular narrator who can't resist chuckling at his own jokes.
As we learn that it's another glorious morning in the best place to live, Oona the Atlantic Puffin (Kate McCafferty) plays underwater with her friend, Silky the seal pup (Laura McCallan). Seeing a flight of puffins overhead, Oona hurries home, picking up baby brother Baba (Sally McDaid), who is playing hide and seek with Bernie the hermit crab (Jim Craig).
Having greeted Mossy the Pygmy Shrew (Darragh Gargan), Flynne the red fox (Orna Canning), Spikey the hedgehog, and May the rabbit (Anna McDaid), Oona makes the acquaintance of a Tufted Puffin called Isabelle (Eva Whittaker) and her adopted brother, a Golden Pheasant named Phoenix (Euan McGrath). Oona asks Mama (Geraldine Cole) and Papa (Brian McMonagle) why so many puffins have descended upon their rock and the Narrator informs us that climate change, pollution, and dwindling fish stocks have made life difficult for the world's puffin population.
Isabelle would rather have stayed in her old home and is upset when her parents fly back to rescue some other puffins. Phoenix reminds her that he was accepted when he first joined the family and feels sure they will settle down and be happy. So, when she's asked by an expectant mother (Amy Huberman) to guard a Little Egg while the adult puffins dig burrows, Isabelle seizes the chance to do something useful. She puts up a fight when a Black-Backed Gull tries to attack, but everyone credits Oona with saving the day, with even Phoenix being impressed by her loud squawks and flapping moves.
Poor Isabelle hunkers back beside the egg feeling hard done by. She sings a song about wanting to belong and thinks back to happy times on her old island before a ferocious storm caused so much damage the puffins had to leave. Mama reassures her that she will put down roots, but Isabelle spots dark clouds across the water.
Meanwhile, Mossy and May have taken Oona and Baba to see a cave. However, they fall down a hole and need to be rescued by Marvin (Aaron MacGregor), an otter who has washed up on Puffin Rock. He gets nervous outside his bat cave, but it ready help dig burrows to shelter everyone from the coming storm that Isabelle had spotted. But her beak is put out when attention switches to Marvin and she feels Phoenix is being disloyal by enthusing over his new friends.
When she sees Marvin picking up the Little Egg in mistake for a rock, Isabelle decides to put it somewhere safe. However, she doesn't know that eggs should never be moved from their nests and can't bring herself to tell the adults in case she gets into trouble. She confides in Phoenix and agrees to help Oona find Marvin so that she can explain her error before he tells everyone she's the culprit.
While the others get lost in a maze of rabbit tunnels, Isabelle fights off some more gulls and takes the egg to a new hiding place. She returns to warn Oona that otters can be fierce creatures and Mossy and May are disappointed when Oona elects to keep looking for the Little Egg rather than help them dig. Phoenix is also conflicted, as he wants to protect his sister but doesn't like the web she's weaving.
As the storm whips up, Isabelle sees Marvin by some rocks at the water's edge. They plunge into the tempestuous sea and wash up on a beach cave after Silky swoops down to save Isabelle. Bernie advises her to put things right, which she does just as Oona alights upon Marvin with the Little Egg. Isabelle confesses her error, but wins back everyone's trust by helping Oona haul Marvin back from the cliff edge when he reaches out to stop the egg from rolling into the waves.
All the friends pull together to gather the island's animals in the cave, with the bats lighting the way in the squall. Oona and Isabelle are commended for their bravery and Lala hatches out of the Little Egg and bonds with Baba. Having weathered the storm, the occupants of Puffin Rock return to their homes, as flowers bloom and the sun shines. Isabelle's apology is accepted and her parents return safely with some new dwellers. All is well, as the friends sing and play in a montage showing the changing seasons.
Beautiful to look at, easy on the ear, and full of the kind of gentle wit and wisdom that can be appreciated by young and old alike, this is simply a delight. The messages about the fragility of our planet are as accessible as the discussion of migration, acclimatisation, and acceptance and, if lots of tinies come away with a greater understanding of why we must all work together, then this heartwarming picture will have done its job.
This isn't the kind of film that draws Oscar nominations, but it should. Sara Daddy's screenplay deftly combines discovery with jeopardy, fear with fun, and difference with friendship, while director Jeremy Purcell and editor Sophie Borlée pace things to a tee. The music by Icelander Einar Tönsberg (aka Eberg) is charmingly catchy, even when it gets a little stickily sweet. But it's the interjections of Chris O'Dowd that make this so winning, as he offers factual snippets, explains plot points, and comments on the action with wry affection. What's not to love?
It's not often that a children's animation gets caught up in a race row. But that's the case with Norwegian Rasmus A. Sivertsen's Just Super, which had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival cancelled after the Anti-Racism Taskforce For European Film raised concerns about `the film's depictions of Blackface and animalisation of Black people' in a sequence in which two characters don a leonine costume in order to become Super Lion.
Subsequent screenings went ahead (albeit with a contextualising disclaimer) and Sivertsen voiced his disappointment at the treatment of his film. However, the Schwarze Filmschaffende network issued a statement denouncing Just Super and two other titles in the Berlin line-up - Lars Kraume's Measures of Men and Robert Schwentke's Seneca - On the Creation of Earthquakes - for promoting `anti-Black racist images, tropes, stereotypes and discriminatory narrative forms'.
No one has suggested that any offence was intended by the images, but a fierce debate has subsequently raged about freedom of expression in the age of woke and cancel culture. Given the controversy, it seems odd that the film has been released during the school holidays with no discussion outside the trade papers. So, what's it all about?
In a small Norwegian town, the citizens are protected by their very own superhero. The job of Super Lion is passed down through one family and 11 year-old Hedvig (Reilley Ott) will succeed her father, Leif (John Luc Julien). As we see him coping in his lion suit with a low-flying helium canister and a runaway pram (complete with gurgling baby having an oblivious ball in the teeth of danger), we hear from Hedvig how she is determined to do a good job, even though she is klutzy in the extreme. Hand-drawn flashbacks show her displaying anything but superheroic tendencies while growing up, although she has learned how to cope without her mother, who died when she was small.
Teased by her teacher for being hopeless in gym class, Hedvig is dismayed that cousin Adrian (Gustav Bergold) is going to win the school talent contest, as he excels at everything - to the delight of his proud parents. By contrast, Leif is forever criticising Hedvig and disapproves of her gaming online with her best friend, Thomas (Sammy Holroyd). He's even more annoyed when she shrinks the Super Lion costume in the wash and Hedvig goes to see her grandmother (Priscilla Bergey) in her nursing home for some advice. She had previously held the post, but had allowed the adulation to go to her head and she had revealed her identity, thus forcing Leif to take over while he was still young.
Relenting, Leif allows Hedvig to try the suit and she wears her glasses over the mask. He decides against some of the emergencies coming into the Lion Cave fax and drives her downtown so she can catch a limur that has escaped from the zoo. Reminding her that the suit enhances good qualities, while exacerbating bad ones, Leif drops Hedvig off at the florist where the impish critter is running amuck. Bystanders laugh at Hedvig's clumsy attempts to capture the limur. But, while clambering up some scaffolding, she feels a surge akin to the buzz she gets when gaming. Unfortunately, she doesn't know how to control it and she succeeds only in causing a box crane to collapse and smash the golden Super Lion statue in the middle of the square.
Resigning himself to the fact his daughter can't cut the mustard, Leif starts training his nephew. But Grandma thinks Adrian is too self-satisfied for the task and agrees to help train Hedvig in secret, with her forgetfully inarticulate friend, Conrad. She fails all of the aptitude tests, but Grandma realises from watching her gaming that she has the power to anticipate danger and circumvent it. So, when the limur accidentally pushes a lever that makes a train go full pelt, Grandma steals a sports car to whizz Hedvig to the scene and congratulates her when she saves the day.
Thomas is hurt that Hedvig no longer has time for him and now considers games to be child's play. She also uses the lion suit to help her win the talent show by playing the drums better than Adrian did his violin. However, he suspects her of cheating and Leif is furious when he discovers that Hedvig has been misusing the suit and grounds her. She snaps back that she wishes he had died instead of her mother.
Meanwhile, Little Troll Peak begins cracking and threatens to crush the town. Leif fetches Adrian, but he refuses to help unless his identity is revealed, as he'd rather be famous than of service to the community. Grandma speeds Hedvig to the scene, just as Adrian throws his uncle off the mountain. Leif grabs the suit in falling and Adrian is remorseful at having let things get out of control. But Hedvig climbs down to a ledge and rescues Leif with a little help from the other members of the family.
She throws the lion suit over the edge and declares her intention to be herself, with Leif as her daddy. At that moment, however, the rock starts to crack and the townsfolk fear the worst. But Hedvig calls Thomas and they use play from a skateboarding game to cause a buttress to jut out and provide a safe conduit for the avalanching stones. Leif beams with pride and accepts that the town will have to start protecting itself, while Hedvig echoes her mother's words that you don't have to be a superhero to be super.
First things first, the Super Lion mask is decidedly unfortunate and leaves one wondering why the designers opted for the upper part around the eyes to be dark brown when a lion's face is often uniformly yellow-gold. Admittedly, manes can vary from reddish-brown to black, but that's not the main issue here.
What's puzzling is why the makers went on the offensive rather than acknowledging the potential for offence and entering into dialogue. Their creative intentions appear entirely honourable, but the brusquely defensive reaction lacks humility. Without being overly prudish, it's somewhat surprising that no one has mentioned the tasteless jokes at the expense of the old man suffering from dementia or the fact that Grandma plays cards with him for enticingly coloured pills.
Nevertheless, Kamilla Krogsveen's script does contain positive messages about being true to oneself and everyone having different talents. It also posits that an ungainly girl in glasses is every bit as good as her male cousin, despite his show-offy capabilities. Moreover, there are some genuinely funny moments involving the runaway baby and the rascally limur. The CGI animation is also accomplished, even though it takes few stylistic risks. But the mask will prove a problem for many, regardless of how much Sivertsen and Qvisten Animation might protest and, in the process, rather miss the point of their own film.
KATAK: THE BRAVE BELUGA.
While Nicola Lemay has a previous directorial credit, courtesy of Felix and the Hidden Treasure (2021), co-director Christine Dallaire-Dupont and screenwriter Andrée Lambert are first-time feature makers and their inexperience rather shows in Katak, the Brave Beluga. Despite being a hit in its native Québec, this well-meaning animation is both a coming-of-age adventure and an eco parable. But it can't make up its mind whether it's aimed at pre-schoolers, slightly older siblings, or accompanying adults.
Katak (Robert Naylor) is a grey beluga whale. who lives with his mother, Marina (Eleanor Noble). Unlike pals Lulu (Skyler Clark), Sim (Noble), and Albi (Wyatt Bowen), however, he has yet to turn white and can't leave the pod to live with the males until he does. Grandma (Ginette Reno) consoles him after he hears some seals gossiping about him being immature. He feels worse when the pregnant Estelle (Angela Galuppo) gets disorientated after a noisy boat (or `floater') passes overhead and Albi has to rescue him.
Grandma cheers Katak up by telling him about how his grandfather (who was also called Katak) once defeated a killer whale named Jack Knife. But he still wishes he could grow up and prove his worth, especially when Estelle loses her calf and Grandma becomes depressed about the fate of the community. Determined to prevent her from succumbing to the illness he hears the others gossiping about, Katak sets off north to the Great Ice Floe to find the whale who doesn't even know he has a daughter, let alone a grandson. However, he doesn't hear that the pod has decided to go to warmer waters in the south.
Swimming along, Katak has to hide from the ravenous Jack Knife (Terrence Scammell). But he befriends a long-nosed sturgeon called Cyrano (Arthur Holden), two female cod who each believes herself to be the last of the species, and a vegan orca named Jack-Lynn (Angela Galuppo). She just happens to be Jack Knife's daughter and refuses to help him track Katak down because he has been so obsessed with getting revenge that he has neglected her.
Meanwhile, goose sisters Polestar (Jennifer Seguin) and Northstar (Pauline Little) pass on the news to the pod that they have seen Katak and a search party heads out led by Lucy, Bosco (Richard M. Dumont), and Naya (Ilana Zackon). Katak doesn't see them because he has followed Jack-Lynn into the hull of an old wreck and plays catch with her before she shows him her secret hiding place with stars painted on the ceiling.
Jack Knife threatens the geese unless they help him, but Katak uses one of the tricks his grandmother had taught him to put the killer whale off his guard. Cyrano is impressed and reassures Katak that judgements shouldn't be made solely on the colour of one's skin. But he can't take the cold water and heads back, leaving his friend with Lucy, who has left the others behind to help Katak reach his goal. They joke about Albi being a bully and marvel at the Northern Lights. But the group comes together to sleep, as there's safety in numbers.
When they wake, the belugas find themselves trapped in a fishing hole with a ravenous polar bear after them. As he can hold his breath for a long time underwater, Katak swims off in search of a safe spot. However, the bear proves persistent and he chases after Katak. Unwilling to lose his prey to a rival, Jack Knife launches an attack that leaves him seriously wounded. He urges Jack-Lynn to live her way before reminding her that he loves her.
Feeling guilty for swimming away when Jack-Lynn needed him, Katak is relieved when he's able to comfort her. But his mission is to find Katak, Sr., who is the leader of his own pod under the ice. He is proud of his grandson from the St Lawrence River and sad to hear his grandmother is ailing. As their habitat is beset with oil rigs and ships, he decides to head south for the safe zone and reunites with his lost love before she passes. Katak also hooks up with Cyrano again and they jump for joy at the news that Estelle has had a baby girl and that Katak is to be allowed to live with the males.
Capably animated with lovely views of the Canadian countryside and some unobtrusive aquatic effects, this has lots to say about the impact of global warming on Arctic wildlife. Indeed, the circle of life is here in all its glories and complexities and this would make a decent introduction to the natural world for young children, although the food chain aspects of the plot might take some explaining, especially as both the killer whale and the polar bear want to eat Katak and his friends.
For all its good intentions, the screenplay has a habit of lurching between playful and perilous incidents, with the result that it's tonally wayward. The denouement also feels rushed, as the problems of the northern pod aren't explored in a sufficient depth to make a drastic migration seem sensible, especially as the river community had been thinking of moving on themselves. The organisation of beluga society is also sketchily handled, with some tinies likely to be puzzled as to why Katak would want to leave such a cosy enclave and go and live in unchartered waters with males we never get to see.
Supporting characters like the sturgeon and the geese amuse, but the confused cod gag doesn't pay off, while the seals and puffins feel crammed in for a little local colour. The voiceovers avoid cutesiness, but more might have been made about the differences between Katak and Jack-Lynn and why she is left alone while he swims away with a newly enlarged family. Given her facial colouring and the significance placed on being white, this might also have aroused some concerns. But most grown-ups will leave this mediocre saga wondering why the animators chose to give the belugas upper lips that resemble truncated beaks.