Things have been hard lately. There’s still a pandemic. It’s freezing out. It’s been a year since I left my job and I still haven’t found a new one. Things have been put on a pause on the project I’m working on. And I just don’t have the mental energy to do much.
I definitely think my reviews have suffered because of this. And that’s why I’ve also tried to focus on kiddie films lately – they’re much easier to focus on – even though they’re a lot harder to write anything substantive about.
This week I went with Xico’s Journey because it was on Netflix and I thought it would be good to get more international movies in. The difficult thing about foreign movies, especially in countries that don’t have a robust film scene like Japan or India, is that they have to be judged totally differently.
But that still doesn’t mean I can’t call out a bad or mediocre film.
Xico’s Journey released as El Camino de Xico in Mexico is a pretty run-of-the-mill kids’ environmentalist adventure movie. Just with a hint of Mexican mythology. The film follows the orphaned Copi, who lives with her grandmother, and her friend Gus as they travel into a mountain to find her missing mother.
The titular Xico refers to Copi’s dog who accompanies them on their journey and gains the ability to speak.
Oh yeah, and there’s a rich businessman who wants to start fracking in the mountain – which would not only destroy the village but ruin the delicate balance between the spirits of the mountain and the people. Or something like that.
It’s not very clear.
The animation here was an interesting choice – 3-D backgrounds with more 2-D traditionally drawn figures. It wasn’t done particularly well or uniquely, especially since the characters look like they were designed in Flash. They’re very generic and cartoony-looking. At least the humans are.
The animals are much more interesting and colorful. But the animation itself is smooth -and it’s a good contrast between the characters and scenery. I think in some parts it really helps to emphasize the mystical nature of the world they enter, even if the inside of the mountain is left relatively unexplored.
Definitely, the most interesting aspect was the fracking machinery – which was portrayed more like monsters ala Tim Curry’s character from Ferngully: The Last Rainforest more so than aliens or robots.
They almost had a mind of their own. And I liked how despite a limited budget, the animators gave the hired guards different designs rather than making them all look the same. Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter.
I appreciate the choice to animate this way – since it is tough – but I don’t love the style and I think having the main characters animated and designed the way they do – kind of brings the whole production down.
I’m not going to harp on this as I did with Earwig and the Witch because that came from an acclaimed studio and I had extremely high expectations. With this movie, I had no expectations, and considering that it’s the director’s debut film, and it’s from a country that doesn’t have a thriving animation scene – I want to be kind.
The plot is very generic. Two kids and a dog going to save their village from evil capitalists. Can’t really complain about that – but then it gets all over the place. The B-plot has Copi’s grandmother trying to distract the businessmen, so the kids have enough time to escape the mountain.
And there’s a heavy implication that she too had done the same thing when she was younger – along with two other people in the village, but this is never explored. The one aspect of the plot I wish had gotten explored more – because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in a kid’s movie was that Copi’s father was killed by some soldiers when she was a baby – protesting against a different group of investors trying to damage the town.
Her mother became a protector of the spirits and sacrificed herself – but Copi is much more concerned about her mother than her father. But we see him in a flashback getting smashed on the head with a baton.
Which was something I didn’t expect.
The cyclical nature of these events is something that could have been really interesting – but it seems most of the citizens hadn’t learned their lesson from the other times. They all fall for the capitalist’s lies of promising them gold,
Can you even get gold from fracking? I don’t think so. And it’s definitely not a weird mistranslation because fracking is said in English. And the stones that the grandma and her friends have – I don’t know what they’re supposed to do or why they’re important or why these three people are the keepers.
I do think there was supposed to be some kind of hint – that they too had ventured into the mountain at some point and went on a similar journey, but I don’t know.
It’s a bad writing choice and exploring that aspect, as well as the mother’s sacrifice – would have made the film a lot more interesting.
Some things in the film that confuse me aren’t necessarily bad writing choices but are there because it’s part of a culture I’m unfamiliar with. Like the scorpion who stalks the heroes and stings Copi is clearly a mythological being like the rest of the animals, we’re introduced to.
And they don’t explain his motivations or why he’s okay with the mountain getting destroyed – because it’s clearly something an average 5-year-old, who the movie is aimed at would know. It doesn’t need explaining when it’s that obvious.
I assume, too, the mother’s, and later the mayor’s sacrifice, to protect the mountain is a common legend surrounding the mountain, that the one in the movie is based on. It makes sense.
I don’t mind that. I didn’t watch the English dub, so maybe some of the aspects I’m wondering about are explained there – much like how the dub of Spirited Away explains concepts like the bathhouse to viewers who wouldn’t be familiar with it.
But it’s also weird that they decided to explain the origin of the Xolo dog – which Xico is – as to why he’s important to the plot. I would assume the myths surrounding the dog would also be common knowledge – but this is the only large, mythological aspect that gets any attention or explanation.
Some of the other animal spirits do get a bit of an introduction and explanation – but it’s done in a way where it feels more natural – because they’re done as part of a character introduction.
I don’t know.
It’s hard to tell. And I’m trying to be fair with a culture I don’t know a lot about.
But even then, there are aspects that I feel deserve a little more explanation because they don’t make narrative sense. Again, like the stones that I’m not totally sure what they’re supposed to do.
And it doesn’t make any sense.
There are a lot of ways this movie could have been better – I would have loved to see whether the trip into the mountains is a kind of cyclical journey that’s destined to happen once a generation. Or if Copi and Gus are destined to inherit the stones and pass them down.
Will they become protectors of the mountain? Why did it seem the townspeople forgot from their previous experiences regarding how dangerous businessmen could be? Like they show that this town has been targeted before but don’t do anything with it narrative-wise – and they do nothing to explore the grandmother’s past.
I just think these ideas could have been expanded on. The movie is already pretty short – and feels more as a whole like an unfinished draft than a fully conceived motion picture. A few more plot tweaks and some re-writes and this movie COULD have had potential.
I know Mexico doesn’t have an amazing animated film industry – so I’m trying to be generous. But it’s clear a lot of passion was put into this production, and it was the director’s first one, so it’s a good start.
But I also can only judge a movie by its finished project – not what it could have been.
And that’s the scoop.
Grade: C –
Year of release: 2020
Length: 86 minutes
Director: Eric Cabello
Producer: Fernando de Fuentes
Writer: Enrique Renteria
If you liked this review read: “MFKZ” is a movie that should have stayed abbreviated
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