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.

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13)

10 Stars

Don’t be fooled by my review.

Guardians of the Galaxy won’t help you achieve enlightenment, fall in love or lose weight.

Especially if you’re the chick who sits beside me, crushing a popcorn tub singlehanded.

But if you’re looking for a great movie this weekend, you won’t find anything better on the big screen. Guardians delivers what it promises, and more.

That being said.

As is always the case with Marvel Studios productions, some won’t enjoy it. Guardians isn’t part of the superhero genre, however.

It’s science fiction. None of the characters are ‘superheroes.’

Technically thus comprises the ragtag band: one human, two aliens (one genetically enhanced), one anthropomorphic raccoon and one humanoid plant.

It belongs in the intergalactic genre; the same barrel as Star Wars and Star Trek.

If that sounds displeasing, you may be in the same boat as the douchey dude two seats down from me.

The opening scene’s a tearjerker, and I’m ‘swept up,’ so to speak.

It takes place on Earth and involves nothing extraterrestrial. At the emotional climax he speaks.

“Is this when the raccoon shows up?” Douchey Dude asks the Popcorn Vacuum.

Not only is it unfunny and in bad taste, it’s illustrative of his mindset. He’s completely unwilling to buy in.

His wrap-up comment post-viewing is, “It was all corny.”

If he’s so above it, why go in the first place?

I try to avoid personal yarns but am endlessly astounded by the behavior of other adults. If you can’t let yourself enjoy the movie, then don’t go see it.

James Gunn, the writer/director is just a great guy. He’s been on the Adam Carolla Show twice recently. He’s enthusiastic, intelligent and wants to do the sequel if the first is received with public favor.

In his latest appearance on Carolla’s podcast, Gunn claims they cast Chris Pratt as the lead when the actor was out of shape. But it’s clear Pratt got physically fit by the time shooting rolled around.

Zoe Saldana is the queen of science fiction. She plays a major role in both of the more recent Star Treks and wears similar makeup in Avatar. Saldana’s phenomenal as Gamora, and you can tell she does a lot of her own stunts.

Plus she’s enchanting. It’s odd how lovable she can be with all that makeup on.

Bradley Cooper is almost unrecognizable as the voice of Rocket, the raccoon everybody’s been talking about. As per the usual, Cooper’s great.

This is Vin Diesel’s second voiceover role as a humanoid being. Not only is he the voice of Groot in Guardians, he’s also the robot in The Iron Giant (1999).

Karen Gillan’s performance is particularly noteworthy. She’s a Scottish actress who’s quite prevalent in Doctor Who, and played a role in last year’s Oculus.

Gillan’s terrifically menacing as the bionic woman. She’s creepy and evil and fits the tone of the movie perfectly. Hopefully we see more of her in the future.

It’s overall a balanced, vastly diverse cast of characters. The sum total of which makes for a well-acted movie.

Guardians does a lot of things right. The writing constantly defies convention and satirizes common sci-fi themes.

For example, when the heroic outlaws ask for help from the authorities, it’s a relief to see their call’s considered, rather than immediately dismissed.

Much like the humorous discussions of plan creation, Guardians masterfully navigates clichés.

Location and contextual details are presented in a cool and efficient fashion. Digital readouts accompany interstellar approach shots of planetary environments as the perspective transitions between settings.

The shooting, editing, cinematography, music and score are all impressive. I think it’s time we retire “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” from all future soundtracks, though. That song belongs to Remember the Titans.

Despite some overcompensating laughter in the theater, the humor is strong and consistent.

Although the end credits leave much to be desired, the opening credits are informative and wildly entertaining.

There is a lot of action, both hand-to-hand and aerial combat. It’s well choreographed and thrilling.

I wonder what percentage of the on-screen material is CGI. It must be upwards of fifty, but it all looks realistic.

My only criticism regards the scene after the credits.

It’s a major disappointment if you don’t understand the reference. I’m almost twenty-five and despite my vague familiarity, I’m still outside the joke.

If the reference is slated toward an audience older than me, why can’t this movie be rated R?

I know all the answers to my question; they’re just infinitely dissatisfying.

And I was hoping for something that gets us looking forward to the sequel.

Regardless. It’s a tiny failure in an otherwise remarkable film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is cute, thrilling and fun.

It’s everything we can ask from PG-13.