March 07, 2012

La Revolución de Juan Escopeta (2011)

From 1910 to 1920, Mexico was immersed in a series of armed conflicts known collectively the Mexican Revolution, as they resulted in major social changes and as a whole formed the most important sociopolitical event in Mexican history of the 20th century. It all began with the uprising of Francisco I. Madero against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had been in power for almost 35 years. Madero's rebellion was followed by many leaders across the country (like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata), and their Revolution succeeded in ending Díaz' regime in 1911. Unfortunately, that would only be the beginning of the Revolution, as the conflicts between the rebels would continue with General Victoriano Huerta's betrayal and eventual coup d'état. This period of history would mark generations of Mexicans, and naturally, cinema would reflect its relevance. Jorge A. Estrada's "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is a film set right in the middle of the conflict, but what makes it even more interesting it's the fact that it's an animated film, in an industry that rarely produces animated movies.

"La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" (literally "The Revolution of Juan Escopeta") is set in 1914, during the battles against Victoriano Huerta's army. It's the story of a young kid named Gaspar or Gapo (Ulises Nieto) to friends. Gapo lives with his mother (Dolores Heredia) in a small mining town named Mineral de la Luz, as his father has died and his brother is away, having joined Pancho Villa's army. One night, Huerta's army arrives to town while Gapo is playing in the countryside, and when he returns he finds his house robbed and his mother dead. Gapo is taken by Huerta's army in order to recruit him by force, but he is saved by a mysterious gunslinger named Juan Escopeta (Joaquín Cosío). Escopeta is heading north, and when Gapo learns this he decides to join Escopeta, as his brother's army is there. Escopeta reluctantly accepts, and the two begin a journey through the Mexican heartland, which they will try to cross despite the constant battles between Huerta's army and the rebel forces. And to make things worse, another gunslinger is after Escopeta's head.

Written by director Jorge A. Estrada himself, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" follows essentially the classic pattern of a road movie in which two very different characters, the idealist Gapo and the tough Juan Escopeta, will learn to work together and an unlikely friendship is formed. All with a quite appropriate Western setting. Perhaps it's not the most original plot line, but an interesting element is the fact that Estrada builds his story around several historical moments of the Mexican Revolution, as the two travelers find themselves involved in some of its major conflicts such as the Battle of Zacatecas. While not without problems, Estrada succeeds in developing convincingly his two main characters, whom through their epic adventure also struggle with their very own personal dramas. Gapo, eager to follow his brothers' steps, faces the reality of a war that keeps taking lives; while Juan meditates about his mercenary ways and rediscovers humanity in his relationship with Gapo, to whom he becomes a father figure.

Director Jorge A. Estrada's visual narrative is traditional yet effective, unfolding his story at a nice rhythm, balancing the mix of comedy, drama and adventure that makes the core of the plot; and all without betraying its Western roots, which are constantly felt not only in the visual imagery, but in the way it tackles more mature themes, after all, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is set in the middle of a war. In fact, while an animated film aimed towards a younger audience, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" doesn't shy away from serious topics, with Gapo discovering that the reality of war is very different than the games he played with his friends. Unfortunately, while Estrada displays good skills as a storyteller, the work of animation done in the film is mediocre at best, downright awful at worst. The film is a classic 2D animation, with some CG enhancements; but while the character design is for the most part good, the quality of the animation is very poor in almost every aspect.

As a saving grace, the quality of the voice acting is for the most part quite effective. As the young Gapo, Ulises Nieto is good in the role of a young boy about to discover the world. Perhaps some of his expressions sound anachronic, though that's more a failure on the screenplay than on his acting. However, it's Joaquín Cosío whom steals the film as the taciturn gunslinger Juan Escopeta. A character that's more about attitude than anything else, Cosío achieves to give a well defined personality to the tired gunslinger. Bruno Bichir plays Cuervo, the mysterious gunslinger who's after Escopeta, and while his performance is good, it does get a bit over the top at times. Julieta Egurrola has a brief but important role in the film as a lonely nun protecting an abandoned church, and her voice work is pretty good. The rest of the cast is effective, though certainly less impressive. Perhaps the weakest link amongst the main cast is Dolores Heredia, who delivers a pretty poor performance as Gapo's mother.

Estrada's "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" has many remarkable elements to its favor, beginning with a truly inspired screenplay that actually develops its characters and story without limiting itself to just looking cool or being funny. Granted, it has some moments of tedium, and at times it does feel a tad episodic, but as a whole, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" is a very engaging tale of friendship and loyalty. In fact, it's so good that it's actually a real tragedy how awful the quality of the animation is. Developed by Animex (creators of "La Leyenda de la Nahuala"), the work of 2D animation is mess that never really rises up to the level the screenplay deserved. And it's not really a problem in Estrada's directing, as in terms of narrative the film flows nicely, with Estrada picking the right angles to tell his story. The problem is simply in the execution of the animation, which seems to had been done cheaply to save money. To the point that makes one wonder how much better the film would be if it had been a live action movie and not an animated one.

Animated films are scarce in Mexican industry, a filmmaking technique that has never been fully explored, not even during the years of the so-called "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema". In recent times, this has changed and more and more Mexican studios are making attempts at producing an animated film. Unfortunately, the real classic of modern Mexican animation has not been produced yet. "La Revolución of Juan Escopeta" could had been this classic, but while it had a good screenplay, it just lacked quality in everything else. It's sad, because many times it's in the screenplay where most films have their Achilles' heel. In the end, if one manages to ignores the awfully quality of the animation, "La Revolución de Juan Escopeta" will reveal itself as a truly engaging and entertaining story.


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