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FILMS Estonia / Ireland / Belgium / UK

Review: Captain Morten and the Spider Queen

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- Two Estonian and one Irish director have teamed up for this stop-motion animation feature that has just had its world premiere at Animafest Zagreb

Review: Captain Morten and the Spider Queen

Three years in the making, Captain Morten and the Spider Queen by Estonian director Kaspar Jancis and co-directors Riho Unt (also Estonian) and Ireland's Henry Nicholson has world-premiered in Animafest Zagreb's Grand Competition – Feature Film. This puppet movie, developed at Tallinn-based Nukufilm, the world's oldest functioning stop-motion studio, boasts impressively fluid animation and a voice cast including Ciaran Hinds, Brendan Gleeson and Michael McElhatton.

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Morten is the ten-year-old son of a ship’s captain, who is constantly sailing the "Southern seas", so the boy is entrusted to the care of Annabelle and Felix, who run a café and have a daughter, Eliza. Annabelle is a former ballerina, a strict and controlling matriarch who rules the household with an iron fist (quite literally – she has a mechanical hand).

Morten spends his days waiting for his father to return and dreaming of becoming a sailor himself. He creates a makeshift model ship out of an old shoe and populates the crew with insects, trying to teach them to sail it in the aquarium in the café. His father arrives only to leave almost immediately afterwards, still owing money to Annabelle.

In this little Irish town, we meet other colourful characters, including two identical sailors who constantly seem to be drunk (on lemonade), and the scheming butterfly collector Stinger, who is in cahoots with Annabelle in a hunt for pirate treasure.

When the town is visited by an Italian cockroach with a magical fog gun, an incident with the device shrinks Morten to the size of a bug, and he finds himself on his shoe-ship, now sailing through the café submerged in water. But now his insect crew is uncannily reminiscent of his real-life companions, led by Annabelle, who becomes the Spider Queen.

While the puppet stop-motion animation is nothing less than gorgeous, and the whole design is well thought-out and attractive (all of the sets were made by hand, just like the puppets), the overwhelming number of characters prevents the viewer from becoming more strongly attached to the hero, Morten, as do some inconsistencies in their motivations, with the treasure hunt coming in and out of the story's focus. 

On the other hand, Jancis' script does include some clever connections that partly bridge the unclear gaps between reality and imagination in the movie’s world – such as the valve that Morten steals from a water pipe to make a steering wheel for the shoe-ship's rudder, which then causes a flood in the café, through which he later sails in his shrunken size. 

Finally, the quality of the animation itself and the voice cast make Captain Morten and the Spider Queen one of the rare European efforts of its kind. Distributors should welcome the commercial prospects that the film offers, even if younger audiences will have tricky questions for their parents about the film's logic. Or maybe they won't, and will accept this world as it is – in which case, Jancis will definitely have triumphed.

Captain Morten and the Spider Queen is a co-production by Estonia's Nukufilm, Ireland's Telegael, Belgium's Grid VFX and the UK's Calon. Germany's Sola Media has the international rights.

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