“The Book of Life”
Twentieth Century Fox
1 hour, 30 minutes
Growing up in the southwest, the grinning skulls and festive, yet somewhat grotesque decorations surrounding the Day of the Dead were fairly common sights at this time of year. The Day of the Dead falls on November 2 and, though it’s proximity to Halloween would make you think the two occasions were one in the same, in my experience they have completely different purposes. Keep in mind, this is from my perspective – I have no idea whether they’re related or not, but Day of the Dead has always had a more wholesome, communal feeling, where Halloween seems to be based on a kind of negativity. Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween, but as far as I know there’s no tricking on the Day of the Dead. As an adult, I have another reason to get excited about November 2, as it’s the birthday of my daughter, who along with her six-year-old brother, and tens of thousands of other kids around the country, was very excited to see the big screen embodiment of Dia de los Muertos, “The Book of Life.” For the little ones, this sweet tale of true love and family was a hit – for myself, more of a mixed bag, though it’s heart was certainly in the right place.
The scene opens on a group of school children on a visit to a boring old history museum. However, due to some bad attitudes and an obvious need for a moral lesson, the kids get a special tour of the Mexican exhibit where they are introduced to the real players in our tale, though just in tiny figurine form. At this point, the real movie begins. In a tiny village in the heart of the center of the universe, i.e., Mexico, two young boys vie for the attention of one strong-willed little girl. Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria are the best of friends but such a trio can never last. This inevitable conflict draws the attention of La Muerte and Xibalba, godlike rulers of the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten, respectively – essentially heaven and hell, but they never really frame it like that. Playful La Muerte and bitter Xibalba decide to play out a little wager to see who will get to rule which kingdom going forth, and choose the two boys as their proxies. If Manolo eventually wins Maria’s hand, the beautiful Lady Death, La Muerte, will get to continue to preside over the non-stop parties of the Remembered, relegating Xibalba back to his dreary kingdom, and if Joaquin wins, the reverse shall be true. Joaquin, coming from a family of warriors, is primed to follow in his families footsteps and become a hero. Manolo, a gentle boy more enamored of the guitar than he is of his father’s bullfighting cape and sword looks to have a harder time of it. The tale undergoes a few twists and turns, leading us from the land of the living to the land of the dead and back, and though the final result isn’t hard to guess, I was a little surprised at the route the film takes to get there.
“Book of Life’s” greatest asset is definitely in the visuals. Expertly mixing the intricate aesthetic of traditional Mexican Day of the Dead decoration with the zany, often grotesque cartoon style of Max Fleisher, and then going one step further to create the effect that all of these characters are actually wooden toys, with all the detail implied, is quite a feat. Artistically, this film is a real treat, beautiful, interesting, and constantly surprising. It is unlike most current mainstream animated films, some of which can probably be attributed to the involvement of Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro in the role of producer. If only the rest of the film could have had the confidence of the graphics. Structurally, the framing of the story with the group of snotty kids in the museum is completely unnecessary. Every time we returned for their reaction the film grinds to a halt. I wonder if 20th Century Fox thought this already exposition-heavy film need more just in case people didn’t get what was going on. The story on its own is plenty strong without a bunch of white kids and a blond narrator to explain it to us. Similarly, the music is a complete misstep. Instead of original music done in a mariachi/Mexican style, which is what Disney or Pixar would have done, we get current pop songs or pop-esque numbers with only the slightest attempt to Latinize them. Again, it felt as though the studio was afraid kids would get up and leave if they couldn’t sing along to Mumford & Sons. Not all the music is like this, but even the original stuff feels sanitized and modernized and doesn’t fit the rest of the film.
The voice casting of the film is, for the most part, well done. Diego Luna is great as Manolo and Channing Tatum, as the heroic Joaquin, proves yet again just how funny he can be. Frequent Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman shows up as Xibalba and is perfectly creepy without being evil. In fact, one of the nicest things about the film is how kind it is. Even the villains are not irredeemable, and the one really bad guy doesn’t hang around for long. The biggest casting misstep, however, was including Ice Cube as The Candlemaker, a character that looks like an embodiment of the western image of God, but who has very little to do and really slows things down with his comic relief. That entire character could have been edited out and nothing of the story would have been lost.
All in all, I enjoyed the movie and was more frustrated by it’s shortcomings than with other, lesser animated fare. I thought “The Nut Job,” for example, was just dumb, and therefore had no higher expectations for it. “The Book of Life,” on the other hand, is a true work of art, and I wish the whole thing worked as well as some of the individual aspects. The kids, however, loved it, so I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to examine the movie in detail several dozen more times over the next couple of years. Grade: B+
“The Book of Life” is rated PG for some rude humor, gently cartoon violence, and mildly scary scenes.