(On Cable TV, September 2015) If anyone still needs a reason why diversity in cinema is crucial, The Book of Life should prove to be enough of an argument in itself. As a middle-budget animated film, it has the freedom to explore a story based on a mixture of old classics, dress it up in colorful Mexican-inspired visual style and wrap it all up in a package easily accessible to a wide variety of audiences. I may not think all that much about the framing sequence, but once the film gets to San Angel and the stories of Manolo, Maria and Joaquin, it quickly picks up charm and interest. Reel FX’s animation may not be as polished as Pixar-grade state-of-the-art animated films, but The Book of Life makes up for it through eye-popping visual design, in-between stylized character design (many characters are wood puppets that turn to bone in the land of the dead), a broad color palette and bold flights of fancy. It is, as a result, almost completely charming. At two or three moments (usually during musical numbers), I just wanted to hug the film and say “You’re an adorable movie, yes you are!” Thematically, the film dares to tackle life-and-death in a kids’ film (albeit in a very unthreatening fashion), and writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez brings a delightfully different point of view to the result. As a full-spectrum counterpart to Burton’s animated features, The Book of Life is likely to find a devoted audience. It certainly deserves a wide one.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) The good news with animated films is that imagination is the only limit to what wonders they can conjure. The bad news are that… sometimes, you end up with films as strangely conceived as Free Bird. That probably sounds harsher than this Reel FX Creative Studio film deserves: Free Birds is the kind of animated comedy that you can watch without too much trouble, just letting the jokes land where they can. But at some point, you have to take a look at the rather ugly turkey design (would it have killed the designer to at least nod in the direction of cuteness?), the ludicrous premise (turkeys go back in time to convince Americans not to eat them for thanksgiving), the obnoxious parallels between these imagined turkeys and real Native Americans and wonder –shouldn’t there be a better use of talent and resources than this particular project? Even for a family film, the issue of talking animals being massacred for food can’t be trivialized easily, and once you throw in time-travel (under the auspices of the President of the United States, no less) you can hear the suspension of disbelief buckling under the weight of the accumulated incoherencies. Still, Free Birds is neither painful nor dull: it may be an underachiever with weird notions, but it’s well-produced (the animation isn’t bad) and funny enough to please. But there’s something missing to it, and so it remains firmly in the B-tier of animated features.