I had NO expectations, NONE.
The only thing I know about this film was that my little 'un wanted to go and see it because she'd seen it advertised on a kids meal box.
I didn't know if it would be a "genre" film, what it was about or who was in it. I had a vague inkling that it had a guy in a sombrero.
Presented with a couple of hours to kill, I'm pursuaded to the cinema, so I thought I'd better get an inkling if it was suitable. With failing internet signal on the phone, I glean two things.
Animated musical comedy.
Great. Unknown Disney-lite competitor, a couple of insipid songs and a "True-Loves-Kiss" ending.
Two hours of formulaic mawkishness here we come.
The animators at Disney will be off to their coffee-house of choice safe in the knowledge that they can wander into their office around 10:00 - 10:30, sipping a decaf cappucino , put their feet up at the desk and put in a leisurely afternoons' work desecrating another Central European fairy tale.
There'll be a Bullfighter dressed in a skull-covered matadors outfit brandishing two swords and a guitar sitting in his chair and munching on a burrito.
This film is AWESOME.
Not perfect, but it's up there IMHO with the best animated films ever made.
There , I've said it , and I'm not taking it back. It's my opinion.
So the weaker stuff first.
Noses ! The film has some bizarre, sorry, BIZARRE charactures in it. They're probably in keeping with the overall style of the film (which I'll come to in a moment) , but some of the noses are just plain weird and distracting.
The Framing device ! The film starts with a museum tour of a Mexican exhibit , to show some delinquent kids how fantastic learning can be. Presumably this is to get some investiture from a modern kid audience. Totally unnecessary.
The Storyline. This is not really a problem, for a family film, the messages are clear , and NOT rammed down your throat in the usual "Just Believe In Yourself" manner. But there IS some of that of that intent to the message, but its handled way better than any animated film I've seen in many a year. You could argue that some of the storyline is a well trodden path, but when was the last time that anyone saw a truly original narrative? If you could only make totally original stories that couldn't be compared to others then they'd have stopped making films about a week after the cine camera was invented. I've said it before, its about the execution (no death pun intended).
And ... That's it.
For the positives...
The animation. This is BRILLIANT. You could easily watch this with the sound off and be mesmerized. Stylistically, it's Mexican, REALLY Mexican, and not in a sanitized way either. Especially when the story moves into the netherworlds. The detail is astonishing, breathtaking even. There's so much detail that it took me a while to notice that the characters that are being talked about on the tour are scaled up models of the wooden ones in the museum display cases. The backgrounds are rich and detailed. There is much to enjoy. At one point a character says " What is it with Mexicans and death?' . He's right , there are skulls everywhere. It's like what you'd get if you dipped a goth in a rainbow.
The music. I knew there'd be songs (not that many actually) , so you expect some easily forgotten bland show tunes (one or two), what lifted it above for me was the sudden realisation that there's music from "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" at one point , followed a couple of minutes later by the main character singing the well known.... I wont spoil it for you , but I grinned from ear to ear...(I just wished he'd sung more of it).
The characters - Lots of characters . And many of them are dead. The main leads are great, Manolo the (Singing) Bullfighter, Joaquin the (Indestructable) Soldier. The other main lead is Maria (youthful tearaway Explorer), beautifully realised as a proper personality, with real motivations, a horrible dliemma to resolve, and ultimately the equal of any of the male characters in the film. Indeed, when Joaquin tries to play the strong man/weak woman bit , she verbally chews him up and spits him out (You go girlfriend!) . There are many characters to love (and hate) , and lots of shades of grey here. You could argue that even the main supernatural villain has only questionable motives rather than evil ones. There are also some really cute piglets.
The Storyline. Complicated this, and I'm not sure how much is based on real Mexican folk-lore.
There are two supernatual worlds at the centre of this, the Realms of the "Remembered" and the "Forgotten" . One where the dead go when their lives are still being celebrated by their decendants, and is one huge fiesta, and the other a barren lifeless wasteland.
These are ruled by two supernatural beings, "La Muerta" benevolent spirit, and "Xibablba" mischievous other half to La Muerta. Xibablba has got himself ruling the land of the forgotten due to a bet that's gone wrong, and in order to get out, he has another bet to swap places and rule the happy place instead.
The bet is that Maria will marry either Manolo or Joaquin , with the spirits picking a suitor each.
This bet takes place when the three are children, and doesn't come into play properly until the three have grown up.
Xibablba cheats . Who'd have thought it.
There's then a tragedy, follwed by a bigger one.
Then we're properly in the supernatual, things get weird, and waiting in the wings is the dread bandit Chakal.
The Emotion. Great emotinal depth here . Just when you think that one suitor has it over the other then there's a shift back , then forth , then other factors come into play. My daughter was crying her little heart out at one point, she nearly set me off, glad there was no-one in the seats in front.
The FUN factor. This is great fun, witty, frenetic, dazzling, and different (although it would have been good to be a bit more different). The action is fantastic and brilliantly paced, with loads of humour.
So Mr Disney executive. Go watch this, and after you've finished weeping into the bottle of Tequila you'll want to buy after seeing it, move your studios to Tijuana.