A delightful little puppet confection from director Jan Svěrák, Kuky se vrací (Kooky) follows the adventures an endearing pink doll (“I’m not pink – I’m red!”) struggling to find his way home. A family affair for the director – who frequently casts his father, beloved actor Zdeněk Svěrák, in his films – this one features his son in the lead.
Young Ondra (Ondřej Svěrák) suffers from debilitating asthma; his mother (Kristýna Nováková) forces him to say goodbye to the dust-catching stuffed animal Kooky as she throws him away. “Lucky you,” Ondra grumbles to his yellow elephant creature, “with your washable tag.”
But Ondra prays, and down at the dump, Kooky magically comes to life just in time to avoid being crushed. The little puppet manages to escape to the forest, but a fork-wielding plastic bag guard creature is hot on his tail.
In the forest, Kooky (voiced by the younger Svěrák) comes across the benevolent forest “guardian” Hergot (amusingly translated in the English subtitles as Captain Goddamn), a, uh, root vegetable (potato?) creature voiced by Zdeněk Svěrák.
Trouble: while Kooky attempts to find his way home, the evil Anuška – another root vegetable (parsley?) creature voiced by Jiří Macháček – plots to overtake Hergot as the forest guardian, and wraps Kooky up in his dastardly plans.
Kuky se vrací is light on story, but high on whimsy: the puppet-animated forest scenes, featuring a delightfully surreal mix of creatures seemingly cobbled together from throwaway objects, are a lot of fun. Despite a simplistic narrative, the film never wears out its welcome.
Best of all (maybe): the wonderful original score by Michal Novinski (it reminds heavily of a classic Hollywood adventure tune, but I can’t quite put my finger on it, with a bit of a Goran Bregović beat). Novinski deservedly won a Czech Lion for his work. Also honored for their work on Kuky se vrací: Alois Fišárek (editing), Pavel Rejholec, Juraj Mravec, and Jakub Čech (sound).
My only reservations with the film are some of the live-action scenes, which can occasionally come off as too artificial and cloying; the ending, featuring a homeless man played by Oldřich Kaiser, fits this description all too well.
Yet some of the other scenes are unusually perceptive; Ondra’s fight with asthma, in particular, feels all too real. His description of the house turning on its side at night – which may seem odd to some viewers – is in fact an uncannily accurate metaphor for sleeping with the disease.
One note: some scenes, including the frequent use of fire by the villains, may be too intense for the youngest of viewers.
Following in his father’s footsteps (along with Ladislav Smoljak, Zdeněk Svěrák created the folk hero Jára Cimrman in the 1960s), director Svěrák made a big splash in the post-communist Czech Republic with Obecná škola and particularly the Oscar-winning Kolja (both starring the elder Svěrák).
Before Kuky, he had only made two fiction features after Kolja: the critical disappointment Dark Blue World (at the time, the most expensive Czech production ever; it was unfortunately and somewhat accurately compared to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, released around the same time) and the slight (but modestly successful) Vratné lahve (Empties).
In genre and style, Kuky se vrací is new ground for the director, but it has that familiar Svěrák tone; his handling of the puppeteering is superb, and this is a real pleasure from start to finish.
A “home-made” dubbed version of Kuky se vrací has also been made for international markets (for the puppet scenes, this should work rather well: the characters never move their mouths). Here’s the trailer, narrated by Jeremy Irons (this dubbed version isn’t included on the Czech DVD, nor does it seem to be available yet from the usual international outlets.)