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Paco and the Magical Book
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by Jay Seaver

"Not many kids' movies can live up to 'magical' in the title. This one can."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You could probably cut quite the deceptive trailer for "Paco and the Magical Book", if you chose, by concentrating on the fast-paced, animation-heavy last act. It wouldn't be a complete misrepresentation, but it sure wouldn't give a true idea of what director Tetsuya Nakashima has in store for the audience.

He starts with a framing sequence in which an eccentric old man (Sadao Abe) goes to visit an aimless heir. He's looking for the book of the title, now beaten and worn. But once upon a time, there was a hospital. The patients included badly injured firefighter Takita (Hitori Gekidan), hypochondriac drag queen Kinomoto (Jun Kunimura), a psych case who wishes he wasn't human, and failed suicide Muromachi (Satoshi Tsumabuki). There was a doctor who looked forward to the annual play put on for the "Summer Christmas" celebration, and two nurses - Tamako (Anna Tsuchiya), who was always angry, and Masami (Eiko Koike), with vampire-sharp teeth that she frequently sank into her husband, the nephew of the hospital's wealthiest patient, Onuki (Koji Yakusho). Onuki was a mean old man, cruel to everyone he met, even Paco (Ayaka Wilson), whom he thought had stolen his solid-gold cigarette lighter. What Onuki didn't know was that Paco cannot retain a new day's memories after a night's sleep - hence her excitement at reading her new book for the first time every morning. After their first encounter, though, she vaguely remembers Onuki the next day, which stirs some small vestige of human emotion in the old grouch.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that Onuki's heart will grow three sizes by the end of the film. Despite the unorthodox cast of characters, Paco is a fairy tale, and even the smallest of children will not fail to see the connection between Onuki and the greedy, selfish Toad Prince in Paco's storybook. Nakashima and co-writer Nobuhiro Monma (working from a book by Hirohito "Elvis" Goto) are a step or two ahead of the audience in that case, though, using the framing scenes to comment on how most stories work and then sending it off in a different direction - one that doesn't feel arbitrary at all.

Though it's Paco's name in the title, the story is mostly about Onuki. Koji Yakusho gives an expansive performance in the role.He gets to stomp around the gloriously over-the-top robes and facial hair of an emperor, relishing the character's early nastiness and still preserving a little snap in his voice even as Onuki mellows out over the course of the movie. It takes a while for him to become fully grandfatherly around Paco. Ayaka Wilson is a great contrast as Paco, always perky and as excited as you'd expect a little girl celebrating her seventh birthday to be. She, by the nature of her part, can't vary her performance that much, and while it's the sort of shouted child acting that could easily annoy, the circumstances are such that the character is easily forgiven, especially once we reach the delight of the ending.

Nakashima also gives a supporting cast that could just be gaudy decoration in other movies of this sort nice, tightly contained stories of their own. Gekidan and Kunimura, for instance, are amiable as a pair confession their disappointments in themselves to each other. It's Satoshi Tsumabuki and Anna Tsuchiya that have the nicest B plot as a patient and nurse with pretty nasty self-esteem issues - Tsuchiya was one of the leads in Nakashima's wonderful Kamikaze Girls, and there's a lot of her character from that movie in Tamako. The way she assesses herself as "a bad girl, not very bright" is a little bit heartbreaking Tsumabuki kind of gets on the audience's nerves at times, but he does get to redeem himself later.

That later comes during the gigantic extravaganza of a play that the staff and patients put on for Paco, and for all that the movie grinds its gears a bit toward the start (what he does with Muromachi just seems weird until we get the character's backstory relatively late in the game), it's a rocket in the second half. Nakashima always creates films with distinctive visuals, and Paco is no exception, with establishing shots made from pop-up books, elaborately costumed characters, and scene-setting that look like they come from the stage. Once the film actually becomes a play, though, the fanciful colors multiply, characters morph into the animals they're playing in the play-within-the-film, and it becomes a dizzying CGI-animated adventure story for Paco to ride along in. It's an utter visual treat, even more so than Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko.

Just like those movies, though, looking pretty is not all that Nakashima and company have in mind. Great visual effects and set design only make a film great until the next one with a larger budget comes around, and Nakashima is looking to make something that sticks with the audience. The sneaky truth of the movie is dropped in a casual line from Takita about why he became a firefighter, and it's not quite the moral one might expect from a kid's film, although it's in no way cynical.

Which, by now, is what I expect from Tetsuya Nakashima. In the two previous years when one of his films has played this festival, they've easily been my favorites once all has been said and done - as well as among the best of the year (that "Memories of Matsuko" hasn't gotten US distribution yet is practically criminal). As I write this, the 2009 edition of Fantasia is only halfway done, and there's some great stuff coming up, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised if the streak holds up.

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originally posted: 07/20/09 01:14:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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