Director – Jeremy Purcell – 2022 – US, UK, Ireland, China – Cert. U – 92m
The puffin and animal community of Puffin Rock is thrown into crisis by the arrival of a few refugees, the disappearance of a puffin egg and a terrible storm – spinoff feature from preschool children’s animated TV series out in UK cinemas on Friday, August 11th
Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon’s Puffin Rock TV series (2015-2016) has deservedly won awards in the world of preschool children’s television. Narrated by Chris O’Dowd, who acts as a running commentary and offers guidance to the two main characters, it centres around two preschool puffins Oona and her younger brother Baba who live on the isolated, human-free island of Puffin Rock with their kind, protective and loving parents. Through O’Dowd’s voiceover and the introduction of other animal characters, episodes deliver simple facts about natural history in a friendly and informative manner. While this educational is never allowed to get in the way of the storytelling, it’s a welcome extra. The programmes are around six minutes in length. (The series can be found on Netflix in the UK, where three six minute episodes are gathered into twenty minute batches comprising three episodes.)
Puffin Rock And The New Friends is the first feature length cinema film to be made from the series. It’s far from Cartoon Saloon’s first foray into animated features however, since their pedigree includes The Secret Of Kells, Song Of The Sea, The Breadwinner and WolfWalkers). That said, it’s without doubt a challenge to go from six minute stories to 90-something minutes of feature film. While retaining the essence of the series – the two puffin children and their parents the feature expands the storytelling to incorporate more characters and larger, more complex (preschool) moral dilemmas for which there wouldn’t be space given only six minutes.
Again, this has Oona the Puffin (voice: Beth McCafferty) looking out for little brother Baba (voice: Jo McDaid) and the film is cleverly set up in such a way as to work whether you’re familiar with the TV series and know the location and characters or whether you’re a complete newcomer as your current writer was. O’Dowd’s narration contains a small amount of the educational, natural history one-liners, but those are largely excised in favour of the character narrative and, to some extent, the internal life of the characters.
Larger issues are clearly indicated by the arrival of a family of refugees forced to flee from their island when it was devastated by a storm. This is paid off in the film’s final third when a similar (or perhaps it’s the very same) storm first approaches then hits the normally sunny and idyllic Puffin Rock, and the feature length affords the piece the space to deal with the storm and issues of sheltering from it to survive in considerably more depth than would be possible in six minutes. The refugee characters include tufted puffin Isabelle (voice: Eva Whittaker) who is about the same age as Oona and golden pheasant Phoenix (voice: Euan McGrath).
The outgoing Oona offers to show them round their new home of Puffin Rock, an offer eagerly taken up by Phoenix but rejected by the hesitant Isabelle, who would rather spend time with the now-absent Phoenix, by whom she feels rejected. She is mourning the loss of her old home, an element that to the film’s credit is very sensitively handled here without being simply swept under the carpet as it might so easily have been. The sentiment is expressed in a song sung by Isabelle containing the lines, I want to start again / I want to feel at home.
One night, a mysterious, seaweed-covered otter Marvin (voice: Aaron McGregor) arrives on the beach, having got lost. He is befriended by Oona and others, and displays a striking gift for tunnelling.
Meanwhile, two prospective puffin parents proudly show off the Little Egg in their nest, leaving it to Baba and Oona to guard it. Perhaps with the danger of the storm at the back of her mind, Isabelle tries to takes over, and is joined by Oona when a Black Backed Gull attempts to steal Little Egg which the pair fight off. Concerned for Little Egg’s safety, Isabelle removes it from the nest to hide it in a safer place (an action at which narrator O’Dowd expresses grave concern that she’s doing the wrong thing)
When the island community is thrown into a collective panic about Little Egg’s disappearance, Isabelle digs herself deeper into a hole by scapegoating the otter. Oona, meanwhile, tries to explain that she only saw off the Black Backed Gull with Isabelle’s help, but no-one will listen to her believing rather that Oona did it all by herself.
As the storm approaches the island in the final reel, Little Egg is still missing…
We don’t see many films aimed at preschoolers, but this one can’t be faulted for failing to tackle difficult dramatic conflicts in a way that small children can understand. At times, the O’Dowd narration, which works so brilliantly in the six-minute episodes, feels a bit too much like it’s talking down to the audience. The voice cast is distinctive, something that Cartoon Saloon have already thrashed out in the series as far as the regular characters are concerned, although the characters specially introduced for this film such as Phoenix and Isabelle more than hold their own against the established ones. Indeed, where the series tends to focus around Oona, the narrative have has two strands, with the second concentrating on Isabelle, her loneliness and sense of bereavement, her desire to belong, and her attempts however misguided to do the right thing.
Talking animals are a long established trait in children’s animation, thanks to Disney and others, but it’s not used everywhere here; when the Black Backed Gull attacks, it makes bird noises rather than speaks, so feels more like a creature or a monster than a sentient character like most of the anthropomorphised island occupants.
The visuals and art direction, which will be familiar to watchers of the TV series, are effective and stylish if lower key than previous Cartoon Saloon features. For instance, there’s no attempt at anything as striking as incorporating celtic art in the way that Kells’ visuals did. A sequence in the storm of a tunnel of dark clouds which recalls parts of the folk tale narrative inserts in The Breadwinner. Storm sequences notwithstanding, the overall feel is bright and sunny. There are many pleasures to be had in the character design, the animated movements and the look of the backgrounds.
Like the TV series that spawned it, the feature has been put together with a lot of love and care – and it shows. If you’re looking to take a preschooler to their first trip to the movies, this is the best feature out there at the moment. And there’s also something refreshing about hearing an animated film voiced unashamedly in English spoken with Irish accents.
Puffin Rock And The New Friends is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 11th.