There’s some sort of irony in Willem Dafoe providing the voice of a cartoon seagull just a few months after he so memorably appeared opposite a much more menacing seagull in The Lighthouse. Imagining Dafoe’s gruff bird flying out of the brightly animated Swift and into the grimy black-and-white world of The Lighthouse, ready to attack a pair of crazed wickies, is about all the entertainment value this chintzy production has to offer, though. Produced by German animation house LUXX Studios and released in various markets overseas throughout 2019, Swift (alternately titled Birds of a Feather and Manou the Swift) boasts big names Dafoe and Kate Winslet for the voice cast of its English-language version. But their roles are fairly small, and they don’t bring anything distinctive to the characters.
Seagull couple Yves (Dafoe) and Blanche (Winslet) live on a rock overlooking the ocean at the Côte d’Azur in France, which is rendered beautifully but lifelessly by the LUXX animators, led by co-directors and LUXX founders Christian Haas and Andrea Block. On one side of the rock is the seagull colony, while the smaller swifts live on the other side; the two bird species have mutual contempt for each other, for no real reason other than to provide a lesson for the characters to learn at the end of the movie. Yves and Blanche take in orphaned swift chick Manou (Josh Keaton) and attempt to raise him as a seagull, alongside their biological son Luc (Mike Kelly), but of course Manou never quite fits in.
For a while, it seems like Swift is going to be a story about the seagulls learning to accept Manou and celebrate his differences, and Manou learning to be proud of who he is. But the tale awkwardly shifts gears multiple times, driven by showcase set pieces rather than character or narrative development. Manou has to win an all-important race to prove himself worthy of the seagull community, which allows the filmmakers to swoop their virtual camera all over the beachfront, but it has no dramatic stakes, since winning has little effect on Manou’s standing among them. After he’s exiled to the swift colony on the other side of the rock, Manou falls for disturbingly sexy swift Kalifa (Cassandra Steen), who randomly sings a horrendous Disney-style ballad following a swift jam session in which she plays a seashell like a saxophone.
There are no other musical numbers, and the plot lurches through a series of similarly haphazard sequences that feel like the filmmakers going through a checklist of elements from successful animated movies. The only villains in the movie are a pack of rats determined to steal the birds’ eggs, and their grotesque appearances are likely to scare the small children in the target audience. When the dramatic stakes change every few minutes, it’s tough for anyone, young or old, to get invested in the outcome. The message of tolerance just barely comes through at the end, and it’s delivered without any conviction.
While the background elements are impressively detailed, the characters look clumsy and unpleasant, with mouths and eyes that often don’t line up with the rest of their faces. These animals aren’t cute or cuddly, and even the comic-relief character, a neurotic turkey (or something like that) named Percival (David Shaughnessy), only delivers lines in what Perd Hapley would call the cadence of a joke, without any actual humor. It’s hard to imagine kids, no matter how undemanding, being captivated by this ungainly creation. With its international smorgasbord of elements designed to please the widest audience possible, Swift succeeds only at making itself irrelevant.
“Swift” is out Friday in limited release and on demand.