Dir: Dan Ojari, Mikey Please. Starring: Bronte Carmichael, Richard E Grant, Gillian Anderson, Adeel Akhtar, Amira Macey-Michael. U, 32 minutes
Despite its cosy, familiar tale of finding home within an adoptive family, Robin Robin marks a major break from tradition for Aardman Animations. It’s the studio’s first musical, packed with a rousing clatter of songs that sound as if they were performed by Dick Van Dyke’s one-man band from Mary Poppins. More importantly, it signals a break from their longstanding relationship with the BBC, with the film debuting on Netflix as part of its Christmas line-up.
This hasn’t come, however, with some flashy, Hollywoodised makeover. In fact, many of Robin Robin’s charms lie in how humble it all seems – and I say “seems” because its perceived simplicity masks a formidable amount of intricate stop-motion animation at work. The film runs at 30 minutes, branded as a “holiday special”, akin to the stop-motion animations of Rankin/Bass, beginning with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, which have become part of American Christmas tradition.
Robin Robin tells the story of a small bird – Robin (Bronte Carmichael) – who’s raised by a family of mice after her egg rolls into a rubbish dump. She’s spent a lifetime trying to fit in, puffing up her feathers in order to form two miniature ears and dutifully putting aside any thought of flying. Her family has always accepted her, but Robin still believes she has to secure her place among the rodents by stealing an entire sandwich. Mice are all amateur burglars in this world, and the pilfering of crumbs is their way of life. So, off she sets, her head full of dreams.
The details in Robin Robin are truly exquisite – Aardman’s animators have rendered many of the moving elements in needle felt, including the roaring fires and fresh pockets of snow. It makes the characters look like the old, plush toys that Christopher Robin may have made friends with a long time ago. Directors Dan Ojari and Mikey Please have also fleshed out a world that could convincingly be inhabited by small critters, where garden gnomes are as imposing as the statues guarding Egyptian tombs.
In fact, Robin Robin repeatedly finds new, unexpected ways of nodding to familiar things without stumbling into straightforward homage. Robin, at one point, meets a magpie voiced by one Richard E Grant, whose cave of found treasures looks like Ariel’s grotto and whose ditty about the material life feels surprisingly reminiscent of Mr Burns’s “See My Vest” song from The Simpsons.
And while the idea that family is family, despite the differences within, is hardly a revolutionary take, there’s some welcome room for nuance here. Robin is told she doesn’t belong not only by the villain of the piece – a cat voiced so elegantly by Gillian Anderson that you wonder why she’s ever played anything but a cat – but also by some of her closest allies. It’s a touching reflection on how even a kind word can cut deep. Robin Robin may be short, but it’s rich and satisfying – maybe one to serve alongside the pudding on Christmas Day.