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Like the kids who it’s about and who it’s for, Zip and Zap and the Marble Gang starts out wide-eyed and innocent before becoming more complex and interesting later on. Based on Jose Escobar’s 1950s comic strip, this yarn about a gang of rebellious sprogs taking on a big institution has been cannily updated for the pre-and early teen demographic, though without losing an attractively nostalgic air which should keep parents happily munching their popcorn. Strictly uncomplicated throughout, the delicious-looking film still has enough visual flair and pace to ensure that offshore sales will be brisk.
Friends Zip (Raul Rivas) and Zap (Daniel Cerezo: both floppy-haired, cute leads are debuting) have been banished to a Gothic, correctional boarding school (a Hungarian castle was used for exteriors) run by eye-patched Falconetti (Javier Gutierrez), who informs them that “fools are made by play, men are made by work”. The rebellious Zapi soon runs into trouble and is placed in solitary confinement.
Together with chubby Filo (Fran Garcia), tiny, bespectacled Micro (Marcos Ruiz) and Piojo (Anibal Tartalo), Zip and Zap form the Marble Gang, whose purpose is to make life difficult for Falconetti. Their first act is to deface a statue of the institutes’ founder; as a result, a map falls into Falconetti’s hands which will lead the way to hidden treasure. A race to the treasure ensues, between Falconetti and his sidekick Heidi (Christian Mulas) on the one hand, and the gang on the other. Meanwhile, Falconetti’s feisty niece Matilde (Claudia Vega), a bit or romantic interest for Zap, struggles to be accepted into the gang.
Though the script prefers things to stay on the wholesome side rather than tackle anything dark, space is reserved for a couple of upsettingly nasty images such as doll’s head with a worm crawling over it. Things move up a gear with the discovery of some old footage which reveals that the institution’s founder had actually designed the school as a place for play, a project which Falconetti has perverted. The real question, cleverly laid out by the scriptwriters, is not who will find the treasure, but what kind of education will win the day – imaginative or disciplined.
There is thus very little that’s new on display here, and there is always the sense that the film makers are aiming to revive the staples of good old fashioned boys’ stories for a modern audience. Though the comparison is unfair to Zip and Zap, it all feels appealingly retro in the same way as Harry Potter does, harking back to a pre-tech era in which the height of interactive fun was a game of marbles, whilst ladling on the digital tech to bring that era entertainingly to life.
Little time is spent on character development, and it’s clear from early on that Falconetti’s bark is worse than his bite: ironically, the eyepatch makes it all the more difficult for Gutierrez to create anything really evil, which would have given things an extra edge. The thoroughly wholesome kids likewise are indeed very entertainingly naughty, but not for a second interestingly bad. Outcomes are never in doubt.
All the adventure staples are here, including subterranean tunnels and a monstrous black dog, but it’s during the final reels that all the best stuff happens, as the booby traps, satisfying mechanical clicks and precision-engineered scares of the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark are extended for a really compelling twenty final minutes. The film makers have cannily realized that although modern technology does magical things, its inner workings are invisible to us, and Zip and Zap’s job, executed just fine, is to restore a little of that magic.
Viewers with an eye for allegory will see that the Spanish education system itself, with its general emphasis on subordination and discipline, is given a pretty rough ride.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Kids)
Production companies: MOD Producciones , Zeta Cinema, Atresmedia Cine y Kowalski Films
Cast: Javier Gutierrez, Raul Rivas, Daniel Cerezo, Claudia Vega, Fran Garcia, Marcos Ruiz, Christian Mulas, Anibal Tartalo
Director: Oskar Santos
Screenwriters: Francisco Roncal, Jorge Lara, based on the comic strip by Jose Escobar
Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Paco Ramos, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero, Koldo Zuazua
Executive producers: Juan Moreno, Juan Carlos Caro
Director of photography: Josu Inchaustegui
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Production designer: Juan Pedro de Gaspar
Editor: Carolina Martinez
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Sound: Gabriel Gutierrez, Aitor Berenguer
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes
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