Ten-year-old Morten lives unwillingly with his guardian – the ballet-obsessed Anna – while his father is away captaining a ship. When the mysterious magician Senor Cucaracha comes to town, Morten is shrunk to the size of an insect and trapped onboard a toy ship in a flooded house. To captain his own ship, Morten must face the deadly Spider Queen and her crew of insects.
Playing like a three-way cross between Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Jan Švankmajer, Captain Morten and the Spider Queen is a troublesome yet charming animated feature from Estonian director Kaspar Jancis. This is Jancis’ first feature film, following a string of shorts, and sees him collaborating with noted stop-motion house Nukufilm and co-directors Henry Nicholson and Riho Unt.
The film has a rather old-fashioned sensibility to it: a child descends into a dream-like fantasy, where each of the characters he encounters is a reflection of an adult in the real world. The story lacks any complex or developed themes, instead seeming content to chart out a combination of amiably adventure, comedic hijinks, and the occasional moment of horror. It is the horrific aspect of the film that stands out: whether it’s a gramophone that eats people and extrudes their remains as doughnuts, or a butterfly collector capturing one of the lead characters in an attempt to pin them to a board, the darker moments of Captain Morten feel jarringly at odds with the rest of the film. Younger viewers may find it all a bit too much, yet at the same time it’s the younger viewers who seem the film’s target market. Other odd elements, like two supporting players visibly drinking beer when the dialogue calls it lemonade, suggests a more adult film that has been slightly bowdlerised for an English-speaking audience.
The various characters are animated via traditional stop-motion, with a strong sense of design and a very traditional effect: there’s comparatively computer-generated enhancement to them, unlike better funded stop-motion works such as those by Tim Burton or Henry Selick. Backgrounds are, of course CGI, which is fast becoming the norm for animated features such as this. The character design seems a particular highlight, and comes packed with impressive small touches.
The English voice cast includes such talents as Brendan Gleeson and Ciaran Hinds, which helps give it an additional burst of quality. Ultimately, however, the film does not quite manage to succeed. It is there to be broadly enjoyed, but seems unlikely to be loved. The design, the screenplay, the presentation – it all feels not quite well enough developed to succeed. Animation fans will likely find something to enjoy. As for the children in the audience, I suspect it is very much going to depend on the child. This is a promising but imperfect debut. I hope to see more from Kaspar Jancis in the future, because his feature career is definitely off to a solid start.
Captain Morten and the Spider Queen is playing at the Children’s International Film Festival (24 May – 10 June 2019) in Sydney and Melbourne. Check their website for details.