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VIFF '11: Lo-Fi Puppets And A Big, Hilarious Heart; 'Kooky' Is Destined To Be A Family Cult Classic

Photo of Erik McClanahan By Erik McClanahan | The Playlist October 20, 2011 at 1:54AM

In many ways, “Kooky” harkens back to the halcyon days of yore (read: in particular the ‘80s) when things were scary in kids’ movies. Or maybe we're just starting to show our old age, but didn't it seem like filmmakers back then were unafraid to at least hint at the possibility of actual threat and potential harm to characters, if not follow through on it completely? It was certainly a different time. Maybe they were untethered by the whims of insanely over-protective parents and ludicrous MPAA ratings strictures that insist on rounding off every sharp edge, creating a bland cinematic landscape these days that all-too-often wears down a movie for families to a pathetic, sanitized nub.
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In many ways, “Kooky” harkens back to the halcyon days of yore (read: in particular the ‘80s) when things were scary in kids’ movies. Or maybe we're just starting to show our old age, but didn't it seem like filmmakers back then were unafraid to at least hint at the possibility of actual threat and potential harm to characters, if not follow through on it completely? It was certainly a different time. Maybe they were untethered by the whims of insanely over-protective parents and ludicrous MPAA ratings strictures that insist on rounding off every sharp edge, creating a bland cinematic landscape these days that all-too-often wears down a movie for families to a pathetic, sanitized nub.

While, yes, “Kooky” is a family film, there’s no better descriptor for it than this simple, direct and vulgar statement: it’s fucking awesome! We could end this review right there and feel real good about it...so what about the film, directed by Czech-born writer/director Jan Sverák (the Oscar nominated “Kolya”), has us all in a tizzy? It’s a film after our ‘80s nostalgia-drenched childhood heart, and it’s won it completely. “Kooky,” with its you-can-actually-touch-them puppets and clever, lo-fi character and world creation, manages to successfully straddle that fine line of reminding us of films we love from the past (“The Dark Crystal,” “The NeverEnding Story,” “Labyrinth,” “Return to Oz”) while also being something completely new and fresh. It easily places amongst some of the best family films of recent memory (Pixar not included) that also share a hand-made quality to them and a palpable sense of peril (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Coraline”).

“Kooky” is served well by its simple story. Ondra (played by the director’s son) is a six-year-old asthmatic boy who still talks and plays with his stuffed toys as if they were real. Like the film he’s in, this kid’s not lacking in imagination. His paranoid hypochondriac mother smothers him with hand sanitizers and takes his temperature constantly (the film is actually quite critical of this modern-day parenting trend, which we found refreshing as hell), getting closer seemingly every day to driving her still-young child completely bonkers as he inevitably becomes the next Howard Hughes (it seems like it’s only a matter of time before this kid hates his mom and starts jarring up his urine and fingernails).

When the mother decides to throw out Ondra’s favorite toy -- a small, pink, sawdust-filled toy bear named Kooky -- the adventure really begins as almost everything else in the film, barring a few interludes back in the real world, is set in a forest where inanimate objects come to life and face an “Animal Farm”-esque power struggle. We fell in love with the creativity on display with the character designs. Nothing is too commonplace for Sverák’s clever team of puppeteers and designers: plastic soda bottles, barbeque/grill lighters, string and sticks, and so much more. This is a world that fellow Czech animation/puppet filmmaker Jan Švankmajer (“Little Otik,” “Alice”) would feel right at home in.

Once the fantasy story kicks off – it’s all imagined and/or hallucinated by Ondra during a nasty cold – things move at a rapid clip. Jokes whiz by in the foreground, but also happen in the background of shots. A delicate balance is struck between clever wordplay and cheesy puns (“I’m up a creek with only a paddle”) mixed with broad, and at times, slapstick humor. Kooky joins up with the leader of the forest, called God Damn (a saying this character uses often), in hopes of returning to his owner. It’s basically the plot of every “Toy Story” movie, but made as if the filmmakers hadn’t even heard the term CGI. There’s chases galore (these creatures have some gnarly “Road Warrior”-esque vehicles), tons of laughs, a wonderful and mostly subtle green message about the value of preservation, and simply way too much fun to be had. If you’re not smiling at some point in “Kooky” (or if you’re like this writer, throughout the entire film), then you may have a black hole where your soul, if you had it to begin with, once resided.

There’s so much worth gushing about over “Kooky.” It’s so damn charming and hilarious and whimsical and messy. Part of that charm is that it’s by no means perfect; we’d even go so far as saying it’s a little rough at times. Any film that decides to use the oft-dreaded dubbing in place of subtitles is ripe for ridicule, but here it at least seems to be a deliberate artistic choice by the filmmakers and ends up adding to the humor in ways that would be completely lost if the film were subtitled. Better to experience the lovely visuals and breathtaking, visceral chases through a fantasy land that is all too real and tangible. The crisp, beautiful cinematography by Mark Bliss and Vladimír Smutný (he’s something of a regular collaborator with Sverák, having shot several of his other films), is at odds with the cheapie puppet aesthetics (and we mean that as a compliment), wonderfully countering the rough/raw/artificial/man-made feel of the characters with a smooth, sun-rain-and-snow-drenched natural background filled with natural lens flares.

But the biggest compliment we can give to this fantastic and fantastical film is that, like the best family or kids’ movies, it’s better served being labeled for what it really is. “Kooky” is just a great, magical film. Period. End of story. [A-]

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Review, Foreign Directors, Kooky, Jan Sverák, Vancouver Film Festival


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