January 14, 2013

My Beautiful Girl, Mari: A Coming-of-Age Cartoon

I'll be honest from the get-go. I'm not a big fan of animated movies. And while I did get a kick out of Doggie Poo, a Korean claymation short that's literally about a piece of shit, that fecal fantasy appealed to my absurdist side, not my esthetic one. So if you're wondering how well Lee Sung-gang's My Beautiful Girl, Mari works as a cartoon feature, I'm not going to be able to help you that much. The artwork is very realist children's book: Unblemished people tend to face the viewer directly or in exact profile; the scenery is often static with moving elements. (Just because there's rain doesn't mean you'll see water running off the rooftops, too.) It can be lovely to look at but it doesn't exactly grab your attention. And the dream sequences are never as detailed as the events that take place in reality.

Is there a hidden message in that discrepancy? Perhaps. My Beautiful Girl, Mari is all about two adolescent boys who journey to a imaginary world accessed through a magical marble at the top of an abandoned lighthouse. That world, unlike their own, doesn't have faulty electric lights, ailing grandmothers or a bratty girl throwing a soccer ball at your head. In this alternate universe, a kind of junior Barbarella -- with a white shag cut, a white jumpsuit and a giant white dog -- silently communicates sympathy and bewilderment amid tethered clouds and zeppelin-shaped creatures that are like blowfish that fly in the air. Both boys are lucky to travel to this mini-cosmos since neither merits it based on good behavior. Nam-woo (Lee Byung-hun), the artsy one, is continually inconsiderate to his mom (Bae Chong-ok) and grandmother (Na Mun-hee); Jun-ho (Kong Hyeong-jin), his spoiled best friend, is constantly picking fights with a girl who he has a crush on. While the two boys eventually turn their shared adventures to good, you don't sense that either has grown by their experiences or even takes the life lessons into adulthood. To the contrary, the final monologue has to do with forgetting what happened. I'm likely to do the same.

Critic's advice: If you are a fan of animated films and you do watch My Beautiful Girl, Mari, choose the Korean soundtrack with English subtitles. The acting is infinitely better.

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