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Captain Morten and The Spider Queen (2018)

In a nameless seaside town, 10-year-old Morten is left with his self-absorbed 'Aunt' Annabelle, while his ship's captain father is away at sea. Morten dreams of high adventure on the ocean waves with his Dad, but little does he know what fate has in store for him. Running into the mysterious Senor Cucaracha,  he is accidentally caught in a shrinking ray. His reduced size allows him to set sail on his own model ship as Captain Morten. But the miniature world has many threats of its own, as he soon encounters a crew of ruthless sea-faring insects, who serve the menacing Spider Queen.

We may be getting more animated features now than ever before, but the stop-motion feature is still something of a rarity. Stop-motion features made by anyone other than Aardman or LAIKA are even rarer. Captain Morten and The Spider Queen is a European stop-motion feature, a co-production between Ireland, Estonia, Belgium and the UK- although the Irish and Estonian studios seem to have been responsible for the key creative work.  The film is directed by Kaspar Jancis, Riho Unt and Henry Nicholson, and written by Jancis and Mike Horelick.

The film largely played festivals, apparently only seeing wider release in Estonia, South Korea, France and Poland, before releasing via digital and DVD in the US and quietly arriving on Amazon Prime Video in the US and UK in June 2020.

Captain Morten may have been made in the past few years, but it doesn't particularly feel like it. The setting has a sort of timeless quality to it, with only a few pieces of technology (cars, and gramophones for example) pointing to it being 20th century at least. But more than that, the film feels like a throwback in several ways. The animation itself doesn't look like the same quality we might expect in a modern stop-motion feature, and is more reminiscent of the animation more typically seen in shorts or on television. It might be a stylistic choice, or it could be a result of a lower budget but it has a jerkier quality, lacking the more fluid movement of its higher-end peers. For some stop-motion lovers, this will be part of the film's appeal- after all, unlike LAIKA's films, whose animation is so smooth it is sometimes mistaken for CG, nobody is going to think this is anything other than stop-motion.  The puppets are strikingly designed, giving them a hand-made look that makes it visually distinctive. The sets are uniformly excellent, with Morten's village feeling like somewhere you could walk around in and visit in real life.

The most obvious comparison point for the film is James And The Giant Peach, with which it shares a love for creepy-crawlies and a playful sense of scale. Stop-motion is perfectly suited to stories of characters shrinking or growing and making everyday objects or creatures into threats. Captain Morten does have some fun with this, but it does feel like it's an idea they could have done more with.

The James And The Giant Peach comparison is doubly apt as the story is positively Dahlian, with its ghastly grown-ups and kids in danger of becoming someone's lunch. It also draws influences from The Wizard Of Oz, with many of the characters in the town having a parallel in the miniature world. The Spider Queen herself is based on Aunt Annabelle, both voiced by Pauline McLynn (best known to UK audiences as Father Ted's Mrs Doyle). This, of course, invites questions of whether Morten's adventure is even real, or if this is one of his fantasies. But don't expect that to be answered- and at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter.

The English version of the film assembled a cast of first-rate Irish actors to voice the characters. Alongside the previously mentioned McLynn, there are roles for Brendan Gleeson and Ciaran Hinds and followers of the UK and Irish comedy scene will be amused to hear veteran stand-ups Tommy Tiernan and Jason Byrne pop up. As Morten himself, child actor Cian Patrick O'Dowd does a grand job.

After setting up an intriguing premise, it doesn't really go anywhere particularly interesting. This is a film that seems more than happy to be a fun adventure for the younger audience without having any pretence at being anything more- and there's nothing wrong with that. Adult animation fans may find that the film's biggest appeal lies in its animation and the wonderful artistry that is up on the screen. Anyone hoping for anything deeper may be better served elsewhere.

Ultimately, Morten And The Spider Queen is a film which deserved to have screened much more widely than it has. The film is so little known, it doesn't even have an English Wikipedia page. Hopefully, its debut on Amazon Prime will help it find a wider audience at last.



IN A NUTSHELL:  A good looking adventure film for kids, but small-scale storytelling and little emotional payoff makes for a shallow experience.