“Although there is a widespread perception that disabilities inhibit people from reaching their potential, advocates have argued that in many ways they can serve as assets because of the unique talents that they contribute to the workplace and to interpersonal relationships.”
By Nils Skudra
While staying indoors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently had the opportunity to watch Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, a visually compelling 2013 animated film directed by Mathias Malzieu and Stéphane Berla with dark, macabre plot elements.
The film revolves around a boy named Jack who is born with a frozen heart during a bitterly cold winter storm and consequently has it replaced with a cuckoo-clock, saving his life but leaving him with a permanent physical handicap. I felt that the film conveyed a significant message not only about the ostracism that disabled individuals face, but also about the ways in which they can make their disability a source of empowerment rather than an obstacle. I therefore decided that this review would be worthwhile since disability audiences could potentially relate to the film and find an inspirational message in its plot.
The film takes place in Edinburgh in 1874, when Jack’s pregnant mother ventures to the home of Madeleine (voiced by Barbara Scaff), an eccentric midwife who lives a life of seclusion from the rest of the community. After delivering Jack, she performs a heart transplant to save his life, inserting a cuckoo-clock in place of his frozen heart. Although this ensures that Jack will live, she warns that this is conditional upon three golden rules: Jack must never touch the hands of the clock; he must not lose his temper; and he must never, ever fall in love. This proves too much for Jack’s mother who subsequently abandons him and leaves town. Madeleine is thus left with the task of raising Jack, and she grows to love him as her own since she is incapable of bearing children.
Over the years, Madeleine constantly reminds Jack (Orlando Seale), often to the point of being overprotective, about following the three golden rules because of the potentially life-threatening consequences for his cuckoo-clock heart if any of them are broken. However, one day Jack escapes her watch and meets a visually impaired young street performer, Miss Acacia (voiced by Samantha Barks from Tom Hooper’s 2012 Les Misérables film), who captivates him with her beautiful singing voice. During the subsequent musical sequence, they fall in love, and Jack is determined to reunite with her. Following this encounter, he is determined to go to school, which Madeleine grudgingly agrees to.
During his first day at school, Jack immediately makes an enemy of the school bully, Joe, who also harbors affections for Miss Acacia and is thus enraged upon learning of Jack’s interest in her. Consequently, he and his gang routinely harass Jack over the next four years, opening his cuckoo-clock heart and winding it to make him walk about in awkward fashion. One day, Jack accidentally gouges out Joe’s right eye with his cuckoo when he is accosted on the schoolyard, prompting him to run home believing that he has murdered Joe. Madeleine thus helps Jack to leave town on the train just before the police arrive, parting with her adopted son after having raised him for fourteen years.
As he travels across Europe, Jack is plagued by loneliness but is sustained by his infatuation with Miss Acacia, and he steadfastly retains his determination to be reunited with her. He meets the French illusionist and aspiring filmmaker George Méliès (Stephane Cornicard), who seeks a partner for showcasing his films. After helping to repair Jack’s heart, they venture to Andalusia, Spain to find Miss Acacia. They arrive at a circus featuring a wide variety of bizarre oddities, including a star-headed human face shot out of a cannon and a pair of conjoined twins with angel wings.
Upon discovering that Miss Acacia is a featured singer in the circus, Jack is apprehensive about approaching her since he fears that she may not remember him and that confessing his love may have fatal consequences for his heart. It is at this point that Méliès offers Jack some poignant advice:
You are different, Jack. You can think it must be a weakness. The reverse is true. Your difference is your strength. Your fragility, that clock heart of yours, makes you special and almost irresistible. Make the most of your difference.
This statement is truly profound since it articulates a message of empowerment that resonates within the disability community.
Although there is a widespread perception that disabilities inhibit people from reaching their potential, advocates have argued that in many ways they can serve as assets because of the unique talents that they contribute to the workplace and to interpersonal relationships. For example, autistic individuals, by virtue of their different neurological orientation, bring an intensive focus and diligence to jobs that they are hired for, particularly in their areas of specialization. Furthermore, this neurological functioning accounts for autistic individuals’ tendency to always speak their minds directly, which can sometimes alienate other people but is considered a fundamental value in relationships. This is exemplified by Shaun Murphy, the protagonist of The Good Doctor miniseries, whose brutal honesty is deeply appreciated by Lea, his love interest, and which prompts a change in her parents’ skeptical attitude toward him.
Jack decides to heed his friend’s advice and renews his connection with Miss Acacia after her captivating performance at the circus, although he is initially ambivalent about admitting that he is the same boy that she fell in love with in Edinburgh. After he finally reveals this truth, they plan to elope together, but the reappearance of his childhood nemesis Joe poses a pivotal challenge to Jack’s happiness and the functioning of his heart. When the film reaches its tragic climax, Jack must come to grips with the realities of heartbreak (both metaphorical and, in his case, physical) as a consequence of love.
Beautifully animated and articulating dark themes that are eerily reminiscent of Tim Burton’s films, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a profound film about the joy and painfulness of opening one’s heart to love another, and many of its plot elements may seem too mature for children.
For members of the disability community, however, the film can serve as an inspirational piece about making difference a strength rather than an obstacle in a relationship, albeit with the reminder that doing so may not always have a happy outcome.
As individuals with autism or other disabilities go forward in their lives to find romance, the lessons of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart can provide valuable insight about how to approach a relationship and sustain it, as well as the emotional costs that it can sometimes bring.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.