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.

Pacific Rim (PG-13)

8 Stars

Dig this hypothetical –

Disney’s greenlit filming of The Little Mermaid as a live action feature, with minor edits to the final scene in which (spoiler alert) Prince Eric kills a giant octopus sorceress. Idris Elba’s been cast as Eric (proving I’m not a racist) and Isla Fisher will play Ursula.

In the new version, Idris rides a unicorn across a rainbow and slays Isla with a swordfish skeleton.

It will be difficult for a director to film that shot while maintaining the audience’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’

Therefore, even if they manage to make it visually seamless with reality, other aspects of the movie oftentimes suffer. The acting and/or story department usually takes the hit.

Bearing that in mind, Pacific Rim is a great movie.

It’s described as a ‘creature feature.’

If you didn’t feel a breeze of hesitation flit by, you’re probably going to enjoy it as much as I did.

Just pop it in and know your qualms will be minimal if you’re not seeking weaknesses. Enjoy the spectacular CGI and seamless visual effects, a handful of solid performances from a cast of mostly unknowns, numerous elaborate fight scenes and a way better story than you’d normally expect out of the prototypical summer blockbuster.

I highly recommend Pacific Rim.

Read on carefully, though, I may spoil something below.

The first actor I recognize on-screen is Charlie Day, and that is about thirty minutes into the movie. I kind of liked the cast of mostly unknowns.

I thought Mr. Day turned in a compelling performance and enjoy the contribution of his subplot. I had no idea the mind-melding scene was coming, and it expands the dimensions of the overall story in a pleasing manner.

On a related note, Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket (the protagonist) enter one of her memories and deliver a chilling but sweet scene.

The film toggles between the two main forms of human defense: biological study and military tactics. One provides much needed backstory, the other stays on the forefront of battle. And it works well!

The only other big names are Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost and Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau (who is just a great character.) Seems like old Ron and Guillermo are buddies after the Hellboy franchise.

It’s as if Guillermo Del Toro (or Willie of the Bull, as I like to call him) said, “Given the context, I want well-choreographed clearly-illustrated fight scenes, and the sharpest narrative possible.” And the crew delivered.

Although there are two or three cringeworthy scenes, these are easily admissible if you’re the forgiving type. When the protagonists quarrel with their rivals, Chuck and Herc Hansen, a little shoving match breaks out and is only momentarily painful because of some poor acting.

Other than that, there is little worth criticizing here.

Pacific Rim is more than an impressive effort. It relays a much better story than is necessary with swells of grand fight scenes and an epic ending.

It’s a lot of fun.