Y’all know me, I can’t get enough of my animated movies and, as such, shall try and watch as many of the ones that play at the London Film Festival each year as my schedule will allow for. Last year, for example, I saw four separate animated films which made up a full ninth of my overall movies seen and one of which, The Breadwinner, ended up my runaway favourite of the Festival as a whole. But in 2018, I’ve been left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, Mirai was fantastic, but one film cannot sustain an entire medium by itself and the Festival programme is severely lacking in animation this year. I frankly just don’t believe that this was due to a lack of potential candidates or higher quality standards, especially after having watched Pachamama.
I will give Pachamama this: it looks great. Maybe not in raw animation terms, with stiff character animations and a very limited amount of action happening on-screen at any one time betraying a limited budget. But the art-style and character designs are delightful to look at, translating the art and drawings of Incan civilisation into a semi-3D style that often looks more like paper-crafted stop-motion than CGI. The sunken eyes, the smoothed-out characters that still retain traces of an angular origin, the usage of negative space that adds a painterly feel. Combined with the gorgeous shading work, warm and complimenting colour scheme, and the deliberate decision to run the film at less than the typical 24fps, creating a choppy sensation akin to those in various classic Peanuts television specials, director Juan Antin has crafted a very nice film to look at – and adding further evidence to my credence that animated films should be more willing to experiment with visual styles, rather than just badly emulating the Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks triumvirate.
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Now, if only Antin and the film’s eight credited writers were able to have scripted a movie less insultingly generic, then we may have been on to something. Alas, if you’ve seen a low-rent animated kids’ film before, then you’ve definitely seen Pachamama. Set in a tiny, very-traditional village in the 16th Century, ruled over by the Incan Empire, our villagers are a modest, humble, selfless lot who perform regular sacrifices of their supplies to the goddess of the Earth, Pachamama. But our protagonist, 10-year-old Tepulpai, doesn’t care for any of your stuffy boring rules, maaaaaaan! He worships the awesome power of the Great Condor and wants to become a powerful shaman who fights bad guys and is even introduced by sprinting through his stuffy-old villagers tending to their crops in order to let kids know that this rebel is the character they’re supposed to identify with. Well, when those oppressive Incas take the village’s symbolic statue of Pachamama for themselves and all anyone else wants to do is pray the problem away, it obviously falls to Tepulpai to defy orders and venture off on a rescue mission. He has no plan and is a massive idiot, but he’s got a cute animal sidekick (an armadillo), a tagalong girl, Naira, who’s his polar opposite with her own cute animal sidekick (a llama), and a whole lot of self-belief, so you’d best believe he’ll somehow bumble his way into saving the day from both the Incas and the Spanish Inquisition in spite of being an irritating little turd.
Children are annoying, obviously – and I include myself when I make the proclamation, I was quite the spoiled entitled monster as a child, and if you don’t think you were annoying as a child then you definitely were – but there are ways to make that annoyance at least somewhat endearing. Hell, I praised Mirai to the heavens for its accurate portrayal of a young boy! But Kun had character, specific quirks, went on an arc that took time and felt believable. Tepulpai, meanwhile, is just Stock Kids’ Movie Protagonist, Scrappy-Doo Variant and he reeeeeeeally grates on the nerves. I should not be watching a kids’ movie hoping that the child protagonist actually does get shot to ribbons by the evil Spaniards, but Pachamama provides such a desire. He’s also the only non-visual thing that sticks out across the entirety of this 70 minutes and change film, which is the worst of omens. The storytelling is rote and simplistic, character arcs are missing the connective tissue required to make them work, there are poop jokes (of course), and everybody involved is utterly incapable of saying the word “dead” as if using that word suddenly makes things too heavy despite death being a thematic part of the movie.
The whole thing feels vaguely insulting, aimed at the lowest and least-discerning of age groups. Which is something I would be ok to admit except that a) I have always held animation and kids’ movies to higher standards and will continue to do so, and b) I just this fortnight saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which showed clips of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that dealt with racism, homophobia, depression, and the goddamnned Vietnam War despite being aimed at children. So Pachamama can’t skirt by on presumed lower standards and expectations, because such a thing is only ever used as excuses to offer non-committal passes to subpar films, and children deserve better. A lovely art-style like the one featured in Pachamama deserved a film that displayed even a modicum of effort on the narrative side.