Saturday, March 14, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Nocturna, a hidden star in the wide sky of European animation

The Cat Shepherd, Tim, & Tobermory, Tim's assigned guardian cat, with friends.
Most of us have been afraid of the dark at one point or another in our lives. We try to face those fears as best we can, and it is good training for later in life when as adults we face bigger and altogether too real demons. Nocturna, an animated film that is a collaboration between two French and Spanish studios and directed by and, explores this theme of facing terrors in the dark with a collection of round-faced, quirky characters, done in the traditional hand-drawn cel-animation style.

I stumbled across this little gem completely by accident. I was on Amazon Prime trying to find Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by the creators of one of my absolute favorites, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for best animated feature in this year's Oscar race. (Sadly it did not win, and I have my own personal grumblings about two Disney featured films winning that title two years running, but I'll save that for another time). Unfortunately, Song of the Sea was not available, but Amazon did recommend Nocturna to me (plus, it was free to watch - bonus!) Hmmm..lots of cats, check, focus on the slighty grim topic of shadowy night figures, check, cute, pudgy looking kid, and only 80 minutes long. Okay, let's wind this up and see what happens!

The pastel colors and beautiful watercolor skies make the viewer feel like they are inside a Monet painting. We see that our pint-sized hero Tim is something of an outcast in the orphanage where he lives in an unspecified city (looks a bit like Paris, or perhaps Barcelona - the European influence is palpable here). He also happens to be a budding astronomist, gazing up into the sky from the orphanage window and relying on his stars there to keep him safe from his fear of the dark. One night, he discovers that his favorite star has winked out, which upsets him greatly. When a school bully pulls a nasty trick on him the following night, leaving him in total darkness, he finds his way up on the roof, and discovers a whole other world that comes alive at night, of creatures and cats - loads and loads of cats - each who are assigned to a child to make sure they are sound asleep to ensure the world of Nocturna can be kept safe and undiscovered by the unsuspecting human world. The cat's long,elegant tails quirk upward like a dancing parade of questions marks as they wind their way through the night with shining, golden eyes and sleek, blue-grey bodies.

Tim and Tobermory - images courtesy of Filmax Animation. 
Unfortunately, Tobermory, Tim's assigned cat, has a case of narcolepsy (his version of course, since his "daytime" is at night), so he doesn't do a great job of getting him to go back to sleep. As a result, Tim meets the Cat Shepherd - a hulking, doll-like being who is short on temper but big on heart, who grudgingly agrees to take him to Moka - the coffee-bean crunching head honcho of Nocturna - when they realize more than one star is disappearing on them. I enjoy the stage set effect of the nighttime in the city - that everything atmospheric is achieved through gears, levers, wires - and a dash of magic amid all the practicality.

The accents of the various characters in the English dub are a bit confusing - Tim has a refined British accent, while other characters sound like they have arrived fresh out of the Bronx. But it seems to fit the kaleidoscope of cultural influences the film embraces. I particularly enjoyed the hair "undressers", doll-like creatures who resemble middle-aged women with Long Island accents whose job is to mess up children's hair in their sleep and thus create the effect of "bed head." The plot does become unfocused at times, particularly during the sequences involving Moka. His apparently flexible morals are befuddling rather than intriguing, to the point of where one wonders why he needs to be part of the plot at all. But the eye candy of of the animation and the warmth and grit of the supporting cast (including one very tough little light fixture) more than make up for it's less-than-streamlined moments.

Toby sez: Quirky and unexpected, it is a true showcase of stunning animation created across the seas. Plus, the plethora of cats is a big thumbs up.