Netflix for Kids is our monthly column where we get a childless 26-year old writer to sift through the bottom of the streaming site’s family-friendly film barrel. However, our writer was threatening to take us to court over the amount of rubbish he was watching (although, really, he quite liked Zeus and Roxanne) so we granted him a temporary reprieve with the latest animation from Cartoon Saloon.
Anyone who has looked after young children and used Waybuloo as an easy distraction knows that the youngest television-watching demographic are easily pleased. A cynic would look at the majority of TV for toddlers and deduce that it isn’t particularly hard to make something diverting. Just trip on some hallucinogens, start drawing whatever you see once the drugs kick in, et voila! In the Night Garden. However, while kids are easily pleased by utter nonsense, it takes something special to be enjoyable for the adults who inevitably end up watching it too.
It’s therefore an absolute delight when you discover a series that’s aimed at the pre-schoolers but where craft and artistry is evident in every frame. So it is with Cartoon Saloon’s Puffin Rock, which, in the UK, is a Netflix original. The Irish animation studio made two of the best feature animations of the 21st century with The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, so it’s unsurprising that their attempt at short-form storytelling is packed with all the charm and visual beauty that made their films so beguiling.
Puffin Rock really is aimed at the youngest demographic that can understand it. The episodes are split into 5-8 minute stories following Oona (Kate McCafferty), a puffling who looks after her baby brother, Baba (Sally McDaid), while their parents go out to fish and do other adult puffin things. The stories are gently amusing, featuring adventures such as an underground race with a rabbit, finding a new shell for a hermit crab, or searching for a white egret. Oona’s other friends include a constantly-hungry shrew and a seal called Selkie (a nice hat-tip to Song of the Sea). The show goes big on the cute factor – Baba is a genuinely adorable ball of white fluff – and there is very little by way of threat. (That said, it might give your children a very real fear of villainous seagulls.)
Although it’s aimed at the little’uns, Puffin Rock is never stupid or dumbed down unnecessarily. Each episode has its own little lesson about the natural world, whether it’s that shrews navigate by smell or that seagulls sleep at sea. Occasionally, a story comes with a moral lesson, too, such as the importance of appreciating difference and why you should look out for your siblings. The language is unafraid of technical words, so youngsters can learn what words such as “diurnal” mean. It never talks down to its audience and, one suspects, it’s more effective because of it.
The real reason Puffin Rock is so enjoyable, however, is that every episode is made with care and attention. The voice work is superb. Chris O’Dowd narrates with his usual amiable cheeriness, chuckling and charming his way through each story. He often comments on what’s happening, as if he, too, is as entertained as the audience. The voice cast playing the various young animals are equally accomplished – anyone who loves Irish accents will undoubtedly go nuts for Puffin Rock. Throw in a lovely soundtrack, complete with repeating leitmotifs and a too-enjoyable theme song, and it’s clear that the show is expertly made.
Then, there’s the animation. Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells are both astonishing works of art, using shape and colour to create remarkable, evocative images. There’s a lot more content to create in a television series, so the animation isn’t quite as meticulous as their feature films, but it is nevertheless gorgeous. The thick lines of their feature films are replaced by a much softer aesthetic of pastel colours and fuzzy edges. It’s bright, colourful and always quite lovely to look at. At times, such as in the dawn chorus episode that culminates in an island song, it’s truly beautiful.
Puffin Rock: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.