Review - Captain Morten and the Spider Queen
“A coming of age story with insects” 

By Dace Čaure, Young Tallints participant

"A captain never abandons his ship," says main protagonist Morten in Nukufilm’s latest feature animation Captain Morten and the Spider Queen directed by Kaspar Jancis. And Nukufilm knows all about never abandoning their ship - being the oldest animation studio in the world, it's still going strong and this Estonian/Irish co-production has attracted such voice actors as Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones), Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) and Brendan Gleeson (Paddington 2).

The ‘family film’ often creates a certain image in the minds of the audience, but there are efforts outside of the mainstream film industries to shake up these expectations. Films such as Summer 1993 (Carla Simon, 2017) and My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras, 2016) refocus the genre from pure entertainment to focusing on more mature themes which deals with notions such as pain and loss. Captain Morten, even if it initially seems a light-hearted children's tale, also wanders into this territory. A child, whose absent father leaves him with an inconsiderate couple, is forced to grow up too soon, as he has no-one to take care of him except himself. He dreams of leaving the confines of his lonely life and becoming a sea captain.

His wish comes true after a magic mishap shrinks him to the size of an insect. Morten finds himself on his own toy ship and now has to navigate the treacherous waters of his flooded house - and also of growing up. The bugs he previously tossed onto the ship to serve as its crew now have taken up familiar features - the wasps weirdly resemble the town's two drunken sailors, a grasshoper seems to act the same way as his uncle and the spider is as mean and arrogant as his aunt. The imminent clash between the adults' strong grasp on his life and his naive belief that he is now free ends up throwing him overboard, both literally and figuratively. He now has to take the steering wheel of his life into his own hands.

The style of the stop-animation looks a little rustic, bringing way too much attention to the material of dolls and to the contrast between them and the occasional CGI moments. It somehow seems like an echo of the conflict between old and new, the adult and the child in the film itself. The old, used shoe that now serves as a ship battles with the rebellious rising water that threatens to destroy the world as they know it. Only when Morten gains his crew's trust and takes control of the ship for good, the water level, after having reached its highest point, can pour out of the house, leaving only ruins behind. Returning to his original size, Morten has saved himself and the couple's daughter, which hadn't had the strength to break free from her mother's puppeteering hands on her own, and they both are able to leave their town.

One of the producers of the film calls Captain Morten "...a coming-of-age story with insects". It does have all the elements of a family film, but dark undertones seep through the colourful paint of silly jokes and thrilling adventures. Although there are many stories of unwanted and unloved children, much of the time they're sugar-coated. But Captain Morten has a strange moral compass which saves the pirates after they've walked the plank, but never thinks twice about turning ship's crewmates into doughnuts. It evokes an off feeling about the father who never notices his child's unhappiness, because he's too busy running off to the sea only minutes after he has arrived home. And it feels indifferent towards it all, focusing more on the adventure and fun side of the story.