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Review: The Angel in the Clock

With dozens of films targeted at all age groups, it’s sometimes easy to overlook those that are aimed at the very youngest. One of most interesting movies I got to see at this year at Annecy film festival is The Angel in the Clock (El angel en el Reloj), a Mexican animated adventure movie for preschoolers that deals with cancer, mortality and the concept of time.

The story follows a terminally ill girl named Amelia who is obsessed with time, constantly stopping clocks in her house. One day after she faints on the street her condition gets much worse and her mother explains to her that one day all things will wither away. While for adults in the audience it’s clear that she is referencing Amelia’s illness, all Amelia understands is that one day her parents will die and will be gone forever. Angry that she no longer can go to her dance lessons, Amelia refuses to take any medicine which brings her mother to tears. Wishing to stop time forever, Amelia gets visited by a guardian angel named Malaki, who takes her to an enchanted land inside the cuckoo clock.

In a foolish move, Amelia gives up all her time (literally) to a demonic creature named Timeless, assuming it will freeze her in one spot forever. However, with no time not only her future will vanish but also her past; she will never be born and her parent will never know she existed at all. Amelia and Malaki are joined by two pixie-like creatures, Here and Now, as well a heroic boy named Captain Manecilla and they set out on a quest to bring things back to normal and of course they learn a few things on the way.

It’s hard not to appreciate all the goodwill behind this project. The producer, director, and writer Miguel Ángel Uriegas wanted to create a movie for children, specifically those in hospitals, suffering from cancer or leukemia. Amelia is a character they can relate to and the movie has a strong, positive message to make their lives a little bit easier. Even the end credits make it clear that the movie was designed specifically for ill children.

This being said, story-wise the movie doesn’t even make a token attempt to attract the adults in the audience. From the first scene, everything is bright, colorful, and cutesy. You can tell, that the animators wanted to make everything feel as safe and welcoming as possible, almost like a kindergarten room. All the stuff in the “real world” and the human designs (especially Amelia’s parents) looked very generic, almost to the point of being distracting.

As soon all the fantasy stuff kicks in, the animation gets quite impressive, at times almost a Miyazaki level of artistry. Timeless, the evil demonic entity, in particular, looked as nightmarish as a villain can get. His design is a mix of No-Face from Spirited Away and Aku from Samurai Jack, a yellow mask flowing in a shapeless dark body with a very calm voice which significantly adds to the creepy factor. There are some brief but marvelous flying action sequences. The land of time is also quite eye-pleasing, with a very steampunk (or to be more accurate gearpunk) design, full of flying ships and clockwork animals.

The characters are nothing groundbreaking but do their job of being nice and charming. Malaki the angel is great. He doesn’t talk and remains enigmatic. He’s playful and almost childlike but can be badass whenever it comes to protecting Amelia. The relationship between the little girl and her guardian angel is sweet, heart-warming and while visually removed from anything Christian-specific, it’s still done in a way religious people will find plenty of spiritual subtexts, while the more secular-minded will still enjoy it regardless of implied religious undertones. The director Miguel Ángel Uriegas is smart enough to not overtly isolate anyone in the potential audience.

I’m a tad mixed on “Here” and “Now”. The duo is the comic relief and that role appears to be their entire personality. Every time they are on the screen they either do a silly face, scream, argue, or fall victim to some slapstick. While they never outright annoyed me, and the Spanish voice acting could be amusing, at the same time all of their jokes were simply forgettable. I wish there were a tad more punch-up to their comedy antics. The only character I honestly didn’t like was Manecilla’s girlfriend, a fairy named Martina who was as bland as a stereotypical love interest can get.

What amazed me the most is that for a story with such simple dialog, the script gets pretty philosophical about the nature of time. Without giving away anything, the movie’s message is very strong and important (even if you’re a fully healthy person) and for a story that deals with cancer, it’s surprisingly very upbeat. There are some well done quite moving moments and the plot gets progressively darker and dramatic in the last act.

If you’re an animation enthusiast or just someone who just wants to watch a very smart kids movie then Angel in the Clock may pique your interest. However, I would encourage one to lose as much cynicism as possible before viewing. Much like the new My Little Pony, it’s cute without being insulting, but at the same time doesn’t even try to pretend it’s something it’s not, and what it is simply is a charming fairytale adventure. It’s tailor-made specifically for terminally ill children and I think we need more movies like this. It addresses the fears, feelings of injustice, and other dilemmas that can cloud the mind and tries to push them aside and offer a more positive look on things and in the most gentle manner.

I have nothing but a huge respect for Mexico for producing such films and I’m even more curious about directors Miguel Ángel Uriegas’ upcoming animated movie Costume for Nicolas (“Un Disfraz para Nicolas”) which is about down syndrome with the main character voiced by an actor with the condition. I can only cross my fingers that the result will be as interesting and beautiful as The Angel in the Clock was.

Check out the trailer here.

Check out the teaser here.

-Written by Maciek Kur.