The artists at Aardman deliver another winner with this tale about a clumsy robin.
Though their first project made exclusively for Netflix, Robin Robin brings animation studio Aardman back to familiar territory. Aardman’s big claim to fame was Wallace and Gromit shorts released as TV specials like A Grand Day Out or The Wrong Trousers. It may be dropping on a streaming platform rather than on broadcast television, but Robin Robin allows Aardman to once again cram a lot of beautiful animation and charm into 30 minutes of storytelling.
The holiday offering tells the story of Robin (Bronte Carmichael), a robin raised by a family of mice. Her siblings and father sneak around with the lightest touch to steal crumbs from humans. Meanwhile, Robin can’t help but be clumsier in her attempts to emulate her brethren. After some fowl klutziness ruins an attempt to score food, Robin sneaks out of her home to right her wrongs.
An encounter with lonely Magpie (Richard E. Grant) leads to her discovering that the humans put a sparkling star atop trees they keep inside their homes. Per Magpie, that star can grant any of her wishes! Now Robin’s got a new mission. Forget scoring some crumbs or a sandwich; she’s off to get that star and prove her might as a mouse.
What immediately stands out about Robin Robin is its animation. Like most Aardman endeavors, stop-motion animation brings this project to life. However, the distinct eyeballs and overbite of past projects like Chicken Run or The Pirates! Band of Misfits are absent here. Instead, directors Daniel Ojari and Michael Please opt for a unique look that makes the film’s world look born of scrapbooking tools. The mice and birds, for instance, have eyes that look like they’re just googly-eyes slapped onto fabric with some glue.
Rather than emulating reality, Aardman creates a hand-crafted look that, thanks to the tangibility of stop-motion animation, is as cozy to watch as a roaring fire on a chilly night. The elegantly simple character designs are especially a treat. There’s something innately adorable about the streamlined look of Robin, a rotund figure you just want to squeeze. Tiny humorous touches in the appearances of these animals, like how Robin’s father has a mustache, add delectable sprinkles to the wonderful sundae that is this special’s visual aesthetic.
Much like the animation, Ojari and Please’s story is a pleasantly streamlined affair that could’ve fit into the pages of a children’s book. By keeping the cast small and eschewing distracting narrative detours, Robin Robin focuses on the titular bird and her identity struggles. There’s also a welcome level of warm empathy for the various players in the cast. Neither Magpie nor the members of Robin’s mouse family are randomly demonized to give an extra villain to the proceedings.
Rather than emulating reality, Aardman creates a hand-crafted look that, thanks to the tangibility of stop-motion animation, is as cozy to watch as a roaring fire on a chilly night.
Also standing out in the writing is how, as with the lead of fellow Aardman Christmas project Arthur Christmas, Robin’s character flaw is that she’s obliviously clumsy. As she comically tramples her way through a human’s living room, she feels like a feathered successor to The Tramp or Monsieur Hulot. Like those characters, Robin creates plenty of enjoyable slapstick, but the movie never stoops to making her a punching bag the audience needs to mock. We’re supposed to relate to her flaws, not look down on them. Keeping that in mind ensures that the proceedings keep the sort of heartfelt spirit you want out of a holiday special.
The irresistible voice acting matches the endearing nature of the narrative. Bronte Carmichael, for instance, lends authentic sincerity to her work as Robin, which especially comes in handy during the character’s most downtrodden moments. Surprising no one, though, the standout of the cast has to be Richard E. Grant. Seemingly incapable of not being the scene-stealer wherever he goes, Grant is just brilliant in his comic timing as Magpie while making him aloof but not grating.
If there is a shortcoming with Robin Robin, though, it’s with the musical numbers. A quartet of tunes pops up throughout the story. None of them are bad per se but, they’re just superfluous. They’re all too quick to leave an impression and often feel so hurried you wonder why they even bothered to break out into song.
They also capture sentiments from characters like Magpie and main antagonist Cat (Gillian Anderson) better conveyed as straightforward dialogue. Cramming them into the framework of a song does no favors to the storytelling or the ideas.
Thankfully, listening to these songs isn’t particularly painful. They come and go quite quickly. Once the short’s over, a handful of underwhelming melodies won’t linger on your mind. Effective moments plucking at your heartstrings and all that gorgeous animation, that’s what’ll remain in your memories. It’s also remarkable that this project feels different tonally from other Aardman projects like Shaun the Sheep. Even after decades of making stop-motion productions, the wizards behind Wallace & Gromit can still make something totally new.
Best of all, the film is primed and ready to work like gangbusters with youngsters. I can’t help but smile about a holiday special that isn’t just regurgitating an old brand name or milking nostalgia. Ditto the thought of this becoming an annual fixture of seasonal viewing for a new generation of families the way The Year Without a Santa Claus was for me growing up. Aardman made its reputation by delivering reliably solid entertainment. In Robin Robin they’ve found a soaring way to maintain that tradition.
Robin Robin is taking flight on Netflix now.