It’s difficult to define what qualifies something as Movie Magic, but the dark fantasy film Lamb is electric with it . . . for its opening half-hour. The first of the film’s three “chapters” builds all its magical-realist tension on our curiosity over what, exactly, is going on with its titular child-creature and the lonely farmer couple who raise it as their own. Isolated on an Icelandic farm with only sheep to break up the monotony of their quiet, daily chores, a married couple adopt a newborn lamb and swaddle it as if it were a human baby. We peer into the lamb’s crib wondering what’s going on under those tightly wrapped blankets, what makes it any different from the other lambs who’re routinely born in the barn. We’re invited to look into the eyes of the older sheep on the farm, anthropomorphizing their intellectual & emotional responses to the humans who feed & shepherd them. The longer we stare, the more they begin to look like expressive, reactive puppets instead of natural creatures, blurring the line between documentary footage and Movie Magic. The loss of that boundary sets up an endless realm of possibility in what’s going on with the one lamb the couple has decided to raise inside their home, the one that the camera obscures so that our own imagination can fill in the details. Then, when the baby lamb is shown in full, the magic vaporizes.
My heart sank in Lamb‘s second chapter when it had to stop obscuring its centerpiece creature. Conceptually, I am onboard with this low-key fairy tale about an isolated couple’s desperation to be parents despite the lingering pain of past attempts, but the practicality of visualizing the human-lamb hybrid they adopt onscreen is a mood-killer. Specifically, it’s the choice/necessity to supplement its practical effects with CGI that really zaps the Movie Magic out of the picture. This is the kind of film that really needs the tactility of the Babe animatronics or even the surreal stop-motion of Little Otik to work. Instead, we see a tactile human body toddle across the screen with a cheaply animated CG head superimposed on top of it, never convincingly integrating with the physical world it supposedly occupies. In close-up, when the lamb-child is napping or quietly observing her adoptive parents, she’s perfectly believable as a real, tangible creature that has magically appeared in the couple’s lives – which is why her more obscured presence in the first chapter works so well. It’s when the camera pulls back to show her hybrid body structure in full that the spell is instantly broken, leaving Lamb with all the Movie Magic of a Geico commercial. And since this film isn’t working with a Babe-level Hollywood budget, I’m convinced that the only way to fix it would have been to crudely superimpose her parents’ heads onto different actor’s bodies to level the uncanny playing field.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Lamb besides the magic of its titular creature-child. It’s a quiet, unrushed film with very little plot or dialogue. If you can’t gaze in wonder at the little lamb baby for all three chapters, there isn’t much else to do except wait for the credits (or hope for a scene where the lamb’s “mother” timidly asks her husband “Did . . . did you have sex with our sheep?”). For a more truly magical narrative about an isolated, troubled Icelandic couple in which human actors dance with unconvincingly animated CG animals, I’d recommend watching Björk’s music video for “Triumph of a Heart”. There’s way more heart, humor, chaos, and magic in those five minutes than there is in this entire two-hour snooze.