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Puffin Rock and the New Friends: NYICFF Film Review

a puffin, a bunny and an owl look down a hole in a still from the film Puffin Rock and the New Friends

Puffin Rock and the New Friends, a feature length continuation of the Irish children’s show, is a gorgeously animated story that captures the fears and hopes of childhood.

It’s always a crapshoot putting on a piece of children’s entertainment. Oftentimes it feels as though a movie for children was made by people who would rather be working on a different project, who underestimate the intelligence of children, and are more concerned with catering to the adults who may be watching. In turn, the movies end up feeling cynical and condescending, winking to the audience to let them know how silly the whole thing is rather than telling an engaging story.  Happily, Puffin Rock and the New Friends is the complete antithesis of the cynical work that I just described above, with earnest and gentle storytelling that doesn’t talk down to children, but meets them on their own level, and lovely animation akin to drawings in a children’s book. 

The movie is a continuation of the acclaimed Irish children’s TV show Puffin Rock, which aired on RTÉjr from 2015-2016. The show and subsequent movie are produced by the studio Dog Ears, alongside Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind the Academy Award-nominated movies Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers, which has earned frequent comparisons to Studio Ghibli.

The plot of Puffin Rock and the New Friends is simple and wispy, but enough to carry the viewer along for 80 minutes. Narrated by Chris O’Dowd, the movie follows Oona, a pre-schooled aged Atlantic puffin who lives with her family, including a younger brother Baba, on Puffin Island off the coast of Ireland. The Island has recently seen an influx of new arrivals, puffins needing a new home due to climate change. One of the refugees is a young tufted puffin named Isabelle, wracked by homesickness and anxiety over her new surroundings. Isabelle’s pain is evocatively captured, potent and keenly felt, but not to the point of overwhelming the whimsy of the proceedings.

Through a series of mistakes, Isabelle causes a little puffin egg to go missing, and with help from Oona, Baba and other animal friends she must find it before a storm hits the Island. The action of the movie is punctuated by sweet, but forgettable songs. There are frequent bits of broad comedy that may engage a child, but adults in the room will perhaps find grating. 

Puffin Island is richly rendered by the animators. Traveling from under the sea to muddy caves, one can get a pretty clear view of the geography of the Island and its cast of wildlife. Beyond the clarity of the animation, it’s beautiful. The color scheme is springtime bright, full of cute greens and blues and oranges, and gentle shapes. In front of statics backgrounds, the anthropomorphic characters move with a beguiling stiffness similar to that of the characters in Lotte Reiniger’s  animation.

puffins gather around an egg in a still from the film Puffin Rock and the New Friends
Puffin Rock and the New Friends (NYICFF)

When peril arrives on Puffin Island in the form of a storm or threatening pelicans, I would imagine that it would get pretty intense for a young child, but nothing too scary. Most of Puffin Rock and the New Friends’ runtime is dedicated to spending time in the nature of the Island and watching the child characters play with one another, things that children in the audience will do as well. As Isabelle misses her parents and new home, and struggles to make new friends, children will also be able to relate to those feelings, or should learn to recognize them because a schoolmate they know may go through the same situation. 

Puffin Rock and the New Friends has a strong, worthwhile message, but it is not a “green vegetables” sort of movie. It is a movie that understands the fears and hopes of children and treats that with respect, with characters that children will be able to relate to and colorful animation that they will like to look at. Parents who put on Puffin Rock and the New Friends for their children should be rest assured that this is more than just a diversion, but a movie made with real craft and sensitivity. 

Puffin Rock and the New Friends will be screened at NYICFF 2024 on March 9-17, 2024.

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