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by Jay Seaver

"Ready to work, but not quite demonic about it."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: One of my favorite Fantasia discoveries in recent years is "November", a stark black-and-white fantasy whose willingness to immerse the audience in the world of Estonian folklore made it both more bizarre and grounded, with the obsessive automatons known as "kratts" particularly memorable. Rasmus Merivoo transplants a fair amount of that mythology to the present in his movie "Kratt", but rooting it in such a contemporary setting winds up muting what makes this particular demon interesting and timeless.

The film opens with a flashback to 1895, the last time someone in this small Estonian town built a kratt - that is, a demonically-animated automaton with an endless appetite for work that will turn on its creator should it fall idle. In the present, siblings Mia (Nora Merivoo) and Kevin (Harri Merivoo) are dropped off at the home of their grandmother Helju (Mari Lill) while their parents go on some sort of retreat, without phones but with chores, which Mia especially finds unreasonable. They meet local twins Juuli (Elise Tekko) and August (Roland Teima) and eventually wind up at the library where they discover a book with a pentagram moved from the governor's mansion, whose embattled resident (Ivo Uukkivi) is desperately trying to hang on to power by trying to play to both a developer trying to cut down an ancestral grove and the locals (led by the twins' father) aiming to preserve it.

There are moments where one can see very clearly where the filmmaker might have had the idea to do a movie about trying to conjure work out of thin air beyond grumbling that kids weren't so lazy back in his day, although that framing does make his casting his own children as the main characters even more amusing ("oh, you want to just screw around on your phones all summer? Fat chance, we're going to spend a month making a movie about why you shouldn't!"). Everyone but the grandmother seems to be looking for shortcuts, from Val with her chores, their parents apparently trying to fix their relationship in a couple of weeks, the politician who wants to stay in power without really accomplishing anything versus just showing up and saying something that sounds good - which, to be fair, is about the level of effort the protesters want to put in. There's an especially clever bit later on where Merivoo follows a question asked of a Siri knock-off to the mechanical turk behind it.

It doesn't come together nearly as often as it should, though. For all that characters grumble about social media, it often comes across as a belabored way to make sure the kids don't have an easy way to call for help as opposed to something that happens naturally. Not much ever comes of anything going on from whatever the parents are up to, the ancestral grove protests being presented as being important (aside from a tease about what a kratt made out of modern construction equipment might be capable of), or what's going on behind the scenes in the governor's mansion. It doesn't help that the kids aren't nearly as much fun as they should be - Mia is abrasive and Kevin is kind of undefined relative to her, but consider how they compare to the siblings in the recent Psycho Goreman who have the same dynamic but are both more well-rounded even if played broader. Mia's not quite the kid one hopes gets murdered by the film's monster, but there's not exactly anyone in the film worth getting attached to, and they're all kind of detached at the threads of danger and weird stuff to the extent that it's hard to buy when the film starts to take the stakes seriously.

But the big thing is that this movie doesn't even have a distinctive, visually entertaining monster - no crazy analog puppetry that the kids can't believe is a real danger and very little digital enhancement. There's good reasons for Merivoo to go the route he does - there's something to how the person willing to do the work will wind up doing all of it, and Mari Lill certainly gets to have a bit of fun - but it's an awful tease to give nods to traditional kratts and then more or less go the zombie route. The movie's at its best when Merivoo finds something genuinely peculiar that he can do, whether it be a nasty kill, a cartoonish way of getting across town, or the steadily emptying mansion.

"Kratt" suffers a bit because it's easy to compare it to stuff like "November" and "Psycho Goreman", which took similar ideas all the way into bizarre territory. This is more eccentric than all-out crazy, and while it works well enough, it could do with moving away from the center a bit, whether in the direction of being more satiric, bloodier, sillier, or some combination thereof.

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originally posted: 08/06/21 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Rasmus Merivoo

Written by
  Rasmus Merivoo

  Nora Merivoo
  Harri Merivoo
  Mari Lill

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