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Rag dolls, roots, plastic bags and clumps of string come alive and go on a journey of the imagination in Jan Svěrák's wonderful new fantasy film Kooky (2010). Not animated by stop-motion in the traditional way, the film is rather a combination of live-action and puppetry. Technically, it's not animation at all. But it belongs firmly within the great tradition of Czech stop-motion filmmaking, from Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream (1959) to Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988) to Jiří Barta's In the Attic (2009).
The story concerns a little boy whose old, unsanitary pink plush doll gets thrown away by his hygienically obsessive mother. The boy dreams of the little pink doll's adventures as it journeys trying to get back home to him.
Kooky, as he's named, travels through the forest that borders the landfill on the outskirts of town, where he meets an assortment of the gods who inhabit the forest, some good and some not so good. What ensues combines action movie thrills with the intrigue of a power struggle as the elder of the forest helps Kooky evade his pursuers while also struggling to maintain power. For a puppet film, the production values are high. The puppets are finely crafted, the pacing is tightly controlled, and the scenes are precisely lighted, staged and shot. And the whole is balanced by a tone of easy, lighthearted humor that never strives too hard for laughs.
The heart of the film is in the wonderful variety of creatures that they come up with to inhabit the forest. In this pantheistic world, each of these fabulous creatures is a little god representing one of the living materials of the forest - conks, roots, mushrooms, acorns, antlers, etc. They're the pantheistic representatives of the forest ecosystem. The puppets are each different from one another and lovingly crafted from found material. Each comes across as having its own unique personality. Just like Jiří Barta's In the Attic, much of the delight of the film comes in just sitting back and enjoying the parade of strange creatures made of bits and pieces of of inanimate objects.
Each character's mode of existence is tied to its substrate. Kooky knows he's a teddy, and knows that he can't get wet because it takes three days for him to dry. When he does get wet, he takes his own stuffing out to allow himself to dry. With his fake pink fur, he's out of place in the forest and coveted by a rapacious burnt plastic bag and crumpled soda bottle who scavenge the forest for man-made materials to bring back to their rightful home in the dump.
The forest elder who takes Kooky under his wing looks like nothing so much as a wizened old tuber, replete with rhizomes as a wirebrush and taproots as limbs. He's nicknamed Godam because of his foul mouth. Another creature is made of an amalgamation of tangled ropes and strings. He stands between the natural world and the world of man: he's neither purely natural nor purely man made, and hence his personality is neutral chaotic. He's scheming but craven, siding with whomever will permit him to act out his natural compulsion to entangle hapless victims in his web.
Intertwined into the simple narrative about Kooky trying to get home are various themes that give the narrative heft and depth and that make the film more than merely 'kooky' kids fare. It's also about struggling with corruption, group identity, nature vs man, and the importance of imagination. Kooky is a prime example of how to make a children's film. The story and struggle are simple and mythical like a children's book. But at the same time, it's subtly witty, its visuals are gritty and unprettified, its themes are complex and ambiguous, and its tone is grounded and realistic. No cute characters, crude jokes, lazy pratfalls, and pop culture references in a desperate attempt to maintain children's attention.
The beauty of the film is how it's all based on existing reality. You have a metropolitan area bordered by a forest, and beyond that you have the dump where we deposit the detritus of civilization. Those are the basic terms of the deal most developed countries have struck with nature in this day and age. Nature acts like a buffer to guard us from the horrors of our excess consumption, all while the detritus continues to infiltrate and destroy nature in the form of pollution and development. This film merely brings the existing tension between nature and man into tangible form by way of a story and characters that embody the various facets of that tension. And it does so elegantly and implicitly, masquerading as a children's story, rather than trumpet it aloud. It appears simple at first sight, but has a deceptive thematic complexity if you choose to pull it apart.
At first when I saw the pink doll come alive at the beginning of the movie, my heart sank. It felt cheap; a lame gimmick. But very soon you forget that you're watching puppets. Your mind adapts to the surreality of the situation, and it's then that the puppets truly come alive. Deep down, animation is about the suspension of disbelief. Kooky is no different from Grave of the Fireflies in the sense that both films work their magic on our emotions because their art invests dead matter with life. It's just that we rarely experience a moment of dislocation in anime because we're not reminded of its artificiality the way we are in Kooky or in other recent films in the Czech tradition. Perhaps the intent was precisely to create a moment of dislocation that would make us aware of the fact that suspension of disbelief is an implicit part of creativity and imagination, and to remind us of what comes naturally to children, but most adults have lost.
It's only when Kooky switches back to reality and the little boy that we're reminded of the unreality of the situation. The fact that there are no scenes combining live actors and puppetry is telling of the fact that the puppets are creatures of the boy's imagination. And we might not have truly believed in these creatures had there been humans right next to them. Combining the two would have wrecked the fantasy. It would have turned into a cheap Muppets movie. Which Kooky emphatically is not. With its dark overtones and grimy, gritty visuals that never shy away from the inherent ugliness of life, this is a unique type of deeply satisfying children's film that could only have been made in the Czech Republic.