Children's films that are made for adults, they're a very slim and low-fat genre where many attempts end up being mere family films with a slight edge. When it was announced that Tetsuya Nakashima was going to make his own attempt I never doubted his ability to pull it off though and sure enough my trust proved to be justified. Paco and The Magical Picture Book [Pako to Maho no Ehon] is a true delight for the 6-year-old hidden away underneath all those layers of adulthood.
Nakashima started off his career rather slowly (Happy-Go-Lucky was good but not all that special) but has shown continuous growth over the years. Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko received great reviews amongst genre fans, with Paco he takes the next step in his evolution, creating a film that remains fresh and interesting the whole way through, even building its own little niche.
When making a children's film with adult appeal there are two main roads to walk. You can go all Miyazaki (Ponyo, Tonari no Totoro, ...) and make a true children's film with so much detail and love that it will even appeal to adults, or you can go Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are) and toy around with more adult themes while keeping enough elements for kids to enjoy. Nakashima slices right through the middle of both roads and paves his own unique road.
Paco is essentially a fairy tale with a more dramatic base. Through all the flashy colors, animations, and superficial humor a touching little tale about illness and remembrance is interwoven. You might not really notice the first hour, but once the end credits start to roll the film leaves you with a few things to ponder about. It's nothing earth-shattering or truly ground-breaking, but it's definitely there.
Visually Nakashima went absolutely berserk here. If you don't like bright colors, don't even think of starting with this film. Every frame is filled with rich, visual details that continuously aim to dazzle and overwhelm. There's lots of playing around with light sources, bubblegum colors, and a hefty dose of CG. Not the realistic kind and always functional, creating a somewhat weird blend with the fully CG animated sequences and the paper animations.
The soundtrack sounds very fairytale-like. Nothing that would normally find its way into my CD player (or hard disk, if you want) but within the confines of the film it works very well indeed. It's happy, joyful music that brings a broad smile or adds splashes of cartoon-like drama where needed. Additional points for not making the cast burst out in songs throughout. Unless we're talking true musicals, this never seems to work for me.
The acting is big and overly emotive, with each character a bold and bright caricature. Usually somewhat disturbed too. Yet little by little they seem to grow into something more, especially the bond between Ayaka Wilson and Koji Yakusho flourishes in between all the crazy goofing off. A couple of great supporting roles (Tsuchiya and Kase) finish it off quite nicely.
Paco turned out to be quite a special film indeed. It's overly childish, way too fluffy for its own good, and it's over-the-top maximalist while being completely unapologetic about it, but in the end, it still works like a charm. Nakashima is painting a beautiful, modern version of a fairytale with a range of slightly disturbed characters, a simple yet convincing central theme, and a lovingly executed analogy spread across the film.
In the end, it's neither a film that tries to handle its fantasy roots in a more adult way, nor is it a film that stays clear from darker edges. Paco And The Magical Picture Book is a blistering fairytale featuring some fucked up characters, absurdly detailed styling, and an underlying layer of believable drama, though mostly revealed in the moments and hours after the film. The bold style might not be to your liking (which would be totally understandable) but when it does hit the spot it will blow you away for sure.
My favorite Nakashima film so far. His next project looks more like a regular Japanese drama, but after such a sugar rush that doesn't really come as a surprise. If anything, he truly perfected his skills with Paco and found himself a lovely little niche that could use a couple of companion pieces. No idea if any other directors would be skilled enough to pull it off though. Definitely recommended for those who feel they can still appreciate the naive and glossy joys of the past.