The Book of Life (PG)

9 Stars

If you’ve seen the trailer, the animation looks sketchy.

Cheech Marin covering Biz Markie certainly doesn’t help.

You’re not tantalized, and who can blame you?

Neither was I.

But guess which tops the list of Best Animated Features released in 2014?

1. The Book of Life
2. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
3. The Lego Movie
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2
5. The Boxtrolls

That’s right, folks. The BOL is pretty great.

The animation isn’t sketchy. Cheech’s solo isn’t hokey.

The visuals are wondrous in fact. The animation is multi-layered, lending the fabric of cartoon reality a wood grain texture.

Manolo’s hometown is beautiful; like an Hispanic Mont Saint-Michel. The other world he passes through is gorgeously rendered as well.

The humor is solid and consistent. The characters are compelling oddities.

The narrative is heart-warming and educational.

I worry because annually, the average moviegoer probably scrutinizes (at the most) two animated flicks via big screen.

Frozen is such a hit from 2013, I’d imagine most viewers anticipate the November 7th release of Big Hero 6.

Apparently everyone (and their mother) went to see The Lego Movie; and loved it so much a Lego Batman spinoff’s greenlit.

Therefore, most have hit their animated quota. Perhaps reconsider making an exception.

This reviewer attended Book of Life with his mother, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

‘Dia de los Muertos’; ever heard of it?

That’s Spaniard for ‘Day of the Dead.’

The Skeleton Twins, a dusty quirkedy released in September, touched on the same theme.

BOL’s tone is a bit more light-hearted.

Cheech isn’t the only one singing, either.

Diego Luna as the voice of the protagonist, Manolo, strums and clucks a number of ballads. Expect minor swooning.

Perhaps he’s not perfect in the musical realm, but Luna does a bang-up job. He’s more soft-spoken than your average hero, but that’s what makes his character endearing.

Channing Tatum is quickly becoming my favorite actor. Love that dude.

In the past two years he’s been fantastic in 22 Jump StreetSide Effects and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Plus he did three cameos: Two live-action in Don Jon and This is the End and one voice-acting as Lego Green Lantern.

Speaking of street-jumping, Ice Cube plays the voice of the Candle Maker. His character is very similar to the caterpillar from Epic.

In other odd news, the Candle Maker is arguably the most Caucasian character in the entire cast. Which is similar to Tracy Morgan’s performance in The Boxtrolls; he too voices a white guy.

Ice Cube’s great. He never mails in a performance, and seems like a real stand-up guy. Keep it up, Cube!

Another favorite, Zoe Saldana, enchants as the voice of Maria. This science-fiction titan plays major roles in the Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.

Maria is a lovable delight.

Which comes as no surprise when dealing with Ms. Saldana.

Finally, perhaps the most praise should go to Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo, the voices of Xibalba and La Muerte.

They play the two most interesting characters, and are perfectly suited to the task. They’re the only ones that have to perform two separate voice roles, because their characters undergo a transformation.

Del Castillo navigates a particularly difficult role. At one point she must do an extended scream and gracefully pulls it off.

Which can’t be easy!

All in all, The Book of Life is a great addition to 2014’s animated canon.

We’ll see who tops the leaderboard, come November 7.

The Maze Runner (PG-13)

8 Stars

What do The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Divergent and The Maze Runner all have in common?

They’re based on dystopian YA novels.

They’re also introductions to a multi-part series.

And I never stop hollering about this, but they’re all rated PG-13.

Which is ultimately The Maze Runner’s least redeeming quality.

After all, it’s my favorite of the four previously mentioned.

The MZ’s mostly a quality flick.

Although the stakes are high, the ratings-board approved shellac is still clearly visible. An educated viewer can’t shake the awareness of censorship.

For example, during the more harried sequences (mostly involving a battle or pursuit via ‘grievers’) the filmmakers use the shadowy quick-edits to obscure the violence.

Luckily the CGI monsters are shown in full.

The ‘grievers’ are buffalo-sized mechanical beetles. As far as creatures go, they’re truly outstanding, original and horrific.

The only problem stems from a false hint at the surreal.

If you pay close attention, The Maze Runner is an astounding allegory for entering adulthood. This is in keeping with the summer trend of allegorical science fiction, with Snowpiercer (which I do recommend) and The Zero Theorem (which I don’t).

The plot develops lightning fast. This in turn can lead to confusion.

Or maybe I’m just too old for this sort of thriller.

So, yes, an elevator shaft is reminiscent of the birth canal.

Yes, a labyrinth is a classic metaphor for life.

Yes, the supporting characters resemble archetypes.

But the mind-bending portion of this thrill ride’s a red herring.

Because, no, the plot doesn’t take place inside the protagonist’s head. The viewer need not be concerned with how individual events fit into the self-contained metaphor.

Consider the sequence of obstacles Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) must overcome while fleeing the first griever. Think about the ways he adapts to the physical environment, the increasing risk and differing tasks required to move forward.

A few notes on the acting.

The girl, Kaya Scodelario, turns in a solid performance as Teresa. As does Blake Cooper playing Chuck, the protagonist’s younger buddy.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster (of Game of Thrones fame) plays Newt, punching the thespian clock with efficiency.

Will Poulter from We’re the Millers plays a bit of a one-note character but executes the role proficiently. I like this guy; he’s going places.

Patricia Clarkson plays Ava Paige, a mash-up of Glenn Close’s Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt in Elysium. Much like Teresa, we learn very little about Ava.

The mix of action, suspense and adequate special effects add up to a compelling thriller and a strong entry into the YA novel-turned-film catalogue.

See it in IMAX – this is one you won’t want to miss.

Things aren’t looking good for the Ender’s Game franchise.

However, according to Wikipedia, “Two weeks prior to [The Maze Runner’s] release 20th Century Fox decided to move ahead with the sequel and pre-production began in early September 2014 in New Mexico.”

Whether or not the box office earnings compensate for the $34 million budget, it seems like we’ll be seeing a follow-up.

If anyone’s looking, I’ll be in my tent, eagerly awaiting The Scorch Trials.