Film of the week: The Unbeatables

Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal animación argentina!

Matthew Taylor

from our September 2014 issue

Both the most expensive Argentine movie to date and a record-breaker at the domestic box office, The Unbeatables – which screened at last year’s London Film Festival as Foosball – represents a curious change of pace for director Juan José Campanella, whose dark crime epic The Secret in Their Eyes surprised many by winning the 2010 Oscar for best foreign language film. Campanella has had an eclectic career before and since that success, tackling a variety of genres – romantic comedy, film noir, police procedurals – and switching regularly between homegrown and US-based projects (most recently contributing to AMC’s Silicon Prairie drama Halt and Catch Fire). Still, few probably expected his first post-Oscar feature to be a 3D animation that takes on the likes of Pixar at their own game.

The Unbeatables is based on a story by the late humorist Roberto Fontanarrosa, and what’s immediately evident about it is how accomplished the animation really is, right from the droll opening pastiche of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the dawn of man revised as the birth of football). With Despicable Me’s Sergio Pablos on board as adviser, the CG work here is beautifully crisp and evocative, with colour deployed imaginatively throughout.

It’s certainly in a different league from the film’s plot, an altogether predictable underdog narrative that nevertheless unfurls with some verve. This is neatly framed as a bedtime story recited by a father to his reluctant, tablet-fixated son. It tells how Amadeo, a timid youth obsessed with foosball (table football), is forced to make a stand when his former tormentor Flash, now a megalomaniacal football star, returns home. At stake is not only the survival of Amadeo’s village – Flash plans to build the world’s largest football stadium in its place – but the love of childhood sweetheart Laura. When all seems lost, a miracle occurs: Amadeo’s foosball players come to life and join forces against Flash.

The detailed rendering of these miniature plastic heroes, with their outsize egos and various states of scuffed wear, is a highlight. A well-utilised voice cast in this English version includes Rob Brydon, Alistair McGowan and Peter Serafinowicz, who have fun with their broadly stereotypical makeup – the Scots hard case, the Italian prima donna, the dreadlocked hippie etc – although the script has its fair share of flat moments (a line like “I’ve always dreamt of visiting Stoke” jars with the obviously Latin American setting).

Campanella, though, finds plenty of wit elsewhere, from wacky set pieces (a hurtling chase through a rubbish dump, vertiginous chaos at a fairground) to bountiful references both cinematic (Apocalypse Now, The Seventh Seal, spaghetti westerns) and political (a scene in which the village mayor flees by helicopter nods directly to the identical exit of former Argentine president Fernando de la Rúa during the unrest of 2001). Flash’s grotesquely tasteless mansion is a triumph of design, with crass mock-ups of classic sculptures and rooms full of genetically modified animals, including a Dali-esque ostrich with a football boot for a beak. Also welcome are the sly jabs at football’s corporate venality, illustrated by the endless list of disreputable stadium sponsors that accompanies a crucial match.

There are few surprises, but the slick visuals, piquant humour and genial feeling for the gaming of yesteryear make it a hardy challenger for the animation titans north of the equator.

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