Film Review: Paco and the Magical Book

Bottom Line: Japanese fantasia on the Scrooge tale is sometimes thrill-overkill.

Hong Kong Filmart

HONG KONG -- "Paco and the Magical Book," adapted from the Japanese novel "A Midsummer Carol," must be the weirdest, kinkiest screen interpretation of Dickens' classic about the miserly misanthrope redeemed by reconnecting with his inner child. That's no surprise, since it is directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, who stunned critics worldwide with his ability to turn teen pop culture or retro kitsch into vibrantly idiosyncratic art in "Kamikaze Girls" and "Memories of Matsuko."

Even though "Paco" has a fantasy setting and a young heroine, few kids will watch it without being somewhat perturbed or perplexed by its dark elements and occasional violence. Its target would therefore be late teens and adult film buffs. Some audiences may need a dose of Valium to soothe the effect of the eye-popping CG animation, sets and costumes.

The tale is set entirely inside a hospital that looks like a hybrid between a Gothic cathedral and a Victorian lunatic asylum. Herein resides Onuki (Koji Yakusho), once a tycoon and stomping tyrant, now in convalescence because of a heart problem. His cranky, anti-social exterior is gradually dismantled by Paco (Ayaka Wilson), an orphaned girl who cannot remember anything that happened the day before. From reading out the same storybook for Paco every day, Onuki recognizes his alter ego in the tale's hero -- a selfish frog prince who mends his ways and defeats the evil Crayfish Demon.

The climax is a "Summer Christmas Play," which Onuki directs the patients to stage for Paco. Nakashima's visual exuberance is cranked up to the max in this sequence. Animated scenes, which materialize like a pop-up book come alive, are spectacularly intercut with the patients' live stage performance. The influence of Tim Burton is noticeable, especially the contrasts of light and dark, comic and grotesque, human and spiritual also seen in the American's "Corpse Bride."

The film's weakness is the lack of down time. The camera is always zooming in and out of interiors cluttered with props or swooping around the cast that buzz or flap about like insects caught in a jar.

The supporting roles are played by a fine cast, but the hyperactive script often reduces them to growling, snarling or wailing incoherently behind unrecognizable makeup and circus-like personas. Nonetheless, the portrayal of their wounded psyches and their regeneration moves brims with sweet sadness.

Playing a character who is a composite of Scrooge, the selfish giant and Citizen Kane, Yakusho calibrates his transformation from cranky codger to childlike angel with bombastic flourish in the beginning and subdued pathos at the end. The Eurasian Wilson, all sweetness and light, also impresses with her beautiful diction; anyone would be willing to kill a hundred Crayfish Demons for her.

Production companies: Paco and the Magical Book Film Partners/Rikuri

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Ayaka Wilson, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Anna Tsuchiya, Ryo Kase, Sadao Abe.
Director-screenwriter: Tetsuya Nakashima.
Screenwriter: Nobuhiro Monma.
Based on the book by: Hirohito Goto.
Producers: Kazumi Suzuki, Sei Matsumoto, Yutaka Suzuki, Morio Amagi, Yuji Ishida.
Directors of photography: Shoichi Ato, Atsushi Ozawa.
Production designer: Kyomi Nishio.
Art director: Towako Kuwashima.
Music: Gabriele Roberto.
Costume designer: Hiromi Shintani.
Editor: Yoshiyuki Koike.
Sales: Toho Co. Ltd., Showgate Inc.
No rating, 105 minutes