2014 is the year of focus this week, and I watched a bunch of 2014 releases that I missed out. 2014 falls amongst the lowest in number of animated films I wanna check out for this project (just a mere 21 films – and I had to stretch already with including a miniseries Over the Garden Wall). It doesn’t help that some that I watched aren’t that good to begin with. There are some pleasant surprises, though, with 2 out of these three exceeding my expectations. For 2014 edition we have a film about the Day of the Dead (in a decade where Day of the Dead is frequent, with Coco, the short Dia de Los Muertos (2013) and La Leyenda de la Nahuala deal with the same subject matters), a WWII anime film and American indie Boxcar Children. Let’s get down to it:
The Book of Life (2014)
“I want the film looks exactly like the concept artwork”, said the director Jorge R. Gutierrez. The Book of Life achieves that, and then some. Colored by the vibrant color scheme, the unique wooden puppet character design and the plot that is rich with cultural references, The Book of Life oozes with styles and identity. It just looks so unlike any other American productions out there, with some knockout backgrounds, the Day of the Dead backdrop, and its more mature theme of dealing with death. In addition, I enjoy the humor and the three main characters. While there are instances where they could develop them better, overall I like their chemistry to each other, especially how their professions tie-in well with Mexican’s identity. The story is unfortunately the weakest aspect of the show. It’s too busy with many subplots, and it still embraces many well-worn tropes that we immediately know how they all turn out. Despite those shortcomings, The Book of Life remains a solid alternative for mainstream audiences, given it stands out in a lot of departments. It’s a shame that it failed to be nominated for an Oscar that year.
(3 / 4)
Giovanni’s Island (2014)
Giovanni’s Island has an unusual mix of talents involved. Nishikubo has been immersed in anime for decades. However, the project was also driven by Giovanni’s co-writer Shigemichi Sugita, a veteran live-action director. Moreover, Santiago Montiel, an Argentinian artist, serves as the film’s background designer. It’s this rare mix of talents that makes Giovanni’s Island an unusual blend of realistic storytelling and childlike imagination. The film, although told from the children’s point of view, isn’t exactly childlike or kid-friendly. It’s more qualified as adult memories of how things look in childhood. That is why Giovanni’s Island is filled with nostalghia, and sombre sentiments. Following the two Japanese children growing up in the island where Soviet later occupies, the magic of the film shines brightest in the scene where the kids from these two countries, separated by different classrooms, take turns singing each other’s songs. That scene is powerful and beautiful in many ways, especially in how kids have these mutual feelings that transcends their language barrier and social difficulties. The film also deals with the bleakness of WWII and links the brothers’ journey to characters from Night of the Galactic Railroad, which for me blend very well without ever becoming overdramatic. The production as a whole is a delight, with characters drawn with loose-feeling lines that resemble Yuasa’s products, and the background arts are detailed. If I have a minor complaint, it’s that I feel the present day is a league below the rest of the film. While I feel it’s appropriate for Junpei to go back to the island and learns the fate of Tanya (no, not Tanya the Evil) and the dancing that goes beyond the national boundary (thus feels humane), I have a hard time believing Tanya would remain in that town all her life, and the timeskip remains jarring right after they go through such tragic experience. Ultimately, Giovanni’s Island remains a mature, simple but powerful story that deserves more attention than it currently has.
(3 / 4)
Boxcar Children (2014)
Sometimes, I crave for something like this: an independent, low-budgeted but well-intentioned take on well-liked children’s novels. The reasons: they offer different kinds of charms than mainstream fares, which sometimes include tasteless fart jokes. The Boxcar Children is more well-known as a series of children’s books about four orphaned and homeless siblings found home in an abandoned boxcar. While most criticisms targeting the low-budget production (it is), I have more issues with its storytelling. It tends to simplify the kids’ issues such as how they survive without any supervision from the adults, and how they face hunger often but never really a big problem in this story. Also, what’s about education? It is well-intentional for sure, as these kids are likeable characters and they work hard, but this version plays their journey not so much as their act of independence but kind of sending a mixed message for me. Now, the production indeed looks cheap, unpolished and amateurish, and the worst offender is their lack of facial expressions. Boxcar Children does have really nice voice-acting though. It feels old-fashioned and its heart is in the right place, but the story is far from realistic or believable, which is a real shame.