In the flurry of lame gags, British pop songs and overbusy digital animation stampeding across the big screen, the question pops into your mind: where's Guillermo del Toro? The man's the perfect choice to handle this, the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, when family and friends not so much mourn the loss of loved ones as celebrate their memory. His films show the right mix of Gothic morbidity and childlike fabulism to present this most unsettling of public holidays properly, as a fascinating central facet of Latino culture--which presumably is what the filmmakers intended all along.
Instead we get a gaggle of delinquents seduced by a beautiful blue-eyed redhead of a museum guide (what, no Latina guides?) into sitting still long enough to listen to a story about a love triangle (Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Manolo (Diego Luna) both love Maria (Zoe Saldana)) that strays beyond the grave and back. I get the strategy: they feel they have to lead American audiences into the theater like so many clueless sheep. It feels so sordid though, like standing in some alleyway having my pockets picked...which in effect I am.
Love the Day of the Dead; love the riot of color and food and music, love the Filipino equivalent, All Souls' Day, when we invade our cemeteries en masse and camp out like so many rock groupies on the tombs of our loved ones to chow down on huge cauldrons of boiled rice, pancit (rice noodles), dinuguan (blood stew) and adobo (vinegar-and-soy stewed meat), playing mahjong or our radios full blast. Would love to see the Mexican version duly honored on the big screen, but this isn't so much an adaptation as a Disneyfication, with every tactic taken from the Pixar/Disney playbook. Cute kids? Check. Adolescent hotties? Check. Puerile love story*? Anachronistic pop songs? Chase sequences based on an amusement park ride of some sort?
(*Whispered the ten-year-old next to me: "this is Orpheus and Eurydice isn't it?" Even the Greeks must have thought the story was old...)
I like the idea of rendering the characters as articulated wooden figures, down to the intricately carved finger joints on their hands, the consistent grain and knife nicks on their faces--the details make for a nice analog to age lines, pimples, day-old beards and whatnot, they give the otherwise blank faces some much-needed expression, a lived-in look. But if you're going to go through so much effort trying to render wood in a photorealistic manner, why not go all the way and actually use wood? Do the film in stop-motion, instead of this boring digital crap? It's slower, more expensive, yes (they could have cut down on action sequences if they wanted to scrimp), but a time-consuming, labor-intensive approach might have helped the movie set itself apart, celebrate the kind of handmade craftsmanship Mexican artisans are famous for (and as often sadly misrepresented, by the shoddier knockoffs you see in seedy souvenir shops).
Using songs like Radiohead's "Creep" and Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" is good for a cheap laugh, but isn't the Latin-American music catalog large enough and varied enough to serve? A ninety-minute tribute to Latin culture, and they couldn't squeeze in "La Cucaracha" (doesn't even have to be a pothead joke)? All the excellent Latino actors available, and the Candle Maker character has to be played by Ice Cube, all ghetto and street 'n all? Not happy about Channing Tatum as Joaquin either, but he at least attempts an accent; Ron Perlman gets a pass because 1) he's been a veteran of Del Toro's films since as far as I can remember, and 2) he's Ron Perlman, who is sui generis cool, no explanations needed or desired.
Not everything is borrowed, derivative, or poorly served by digitization. The art is gorgeous; the color palette too. The character designs for La Muerte (Kate de Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman) are distinctively loco, particularly the candles perched on their capes and shoulders; bandit leader Chakal (Dan Navarro) looks like a wittier version of a Transformer, adapted for turn-of-the-century battle (handcarved mecha--just imagine!). Of the protagonists I find Tatum's Joaquin strangely appealing--he's such an ignorant macho lunkhead of a Mexican soldier any sign of improvement feels like character development.
It's not like Halloween hasn't made the leap in children's animation before, most memorably in Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas--there production design also swamped story, but the images were so dense and imaginative it almost didn't matter; you could watch it year after year and uncover still more details. Gaelic culture is well represented in Secret of Kells, a gorgeous largely hand-drawn animated feature with yet another book at the center, the famed illuminated bible on display in Trinity College, and takes its inspiration (and most beautiful images) from the tome's calf vellum pages. Did the film make money? Hell no--but the Irish can point to it proudly, and say "now that's no bastard son of Disney!"
"Write your own story," the Candle Maker declares by movie's end. Good advice, only Gutierrez with Del Toro enabling (Love Del Toro as a filmmaker, but his skills as producer of film and television are less than trustworthy) don't quite follow--if anything, they smother unique material with the cheesiest of toppings. A pity, really.