The Book of Life Review
A COLORFUL PAINT BY NUMBERS ANIMATED FEATURE
The “Day of the Dead” or translated in Spanish as “Dia de Muertos” is a Mexican holiday where family and friends gather together and pay tribute and remembrance to those loved ones who have passed on. Taking place on November 1st – November 2nd, this celebration is a spiritual one, honoring the dead with personal altars (ofrendas) with photos, candles, flowers, and food. 20th Century Fox studios and Reel FX Animation Studios takes an animated spin on this premise with the film The Book of Life. Does the film deserve a glance or should it be banished to Land of the Forgotten?
Told by a museum tour guide named Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) to a group of detention kids, The Book of Life explores the story of childhood friends Manolo (Diego Luna), a bully fighter, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a decorated military officer, and their competition to win over the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). Unbeknownst to the trio, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), King of the Land of the Forgotten, makes a wager with La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), Queen of the Land of the Remembered, on which childhood friend would win Maria’s heart. La Muerte chooses Manolo as Xibabla chooses Joaquin. With Manolo gaining more favor with Maria’s affection than Joaquin, Xibabla, fearing losing to La Muerte, begins to meddle, forcing Manolo to face perilous trials in the underworld as he builds up courage to return home and pledge his love to Maria, while stopping a band of marauders led by the evil Chakal (Dan Navarro) from desolating their town.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Jorge R. Gutierrez makes his directorial debut with The Book of Life, though attaching filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s name to the movie as a producer does boost the appeal of viewing the movie. Reel FX Animation Studios, the animation house behind the flop animated movie Free Birds, brings Gutierrez vision to life with incredible detail. While most animated features, especially those that come from DreamWorks and Pixar, go for a more impressionable “matted” look of photo-realism, The Book of Life carries a different swagger; presenting its characters and its world with stylized caricatures that look similar to Mexican wooden figurines. The result is impressive. Fantastic and distinctive visuals with vibrant colors are everywhere, delivering an animated film (That only had a budget of roughly 50 million) that surely does look different from other animated competitions.
Interestingly, the film explores Mexican heritage with the “Day of the Dead” holiday. It touches on the sensitive subject of death and the remembrance of loves ones who are gone, but in a cartoonish and kid friendly approach (Which is great for addressing these points to youngsters). The film’s major downfall is in its narrative and plot elements. It presents a clever first act, setting up events and explaining the world and its characters, but becomes a traditional (Or perhaps a conventional) animated “Hero Journey” feature film. A love triangle relationship where one of the two guys is the obviously the right one, while the other isn’t quite. It’s a scenario that’s been played out before and unfortunately The Book of Life doesn’t change it. The characters are endearing enough, but so much so not to overlook the formulaic “paint by numbers” plot the movie plays out.
Lending their voices to this animated feature is a cast of several well-known actors and actresses. Diego Luna as Manolo is perfect, offering a charm, and innocence to the character, while Zoe Saldana as Maria has a right mixture of attitude and feminine sweetness. Channing Tatum as Joaquin, however, is a little jarring and a little off, using his more natural voice in a movie where most of the other cast members use a Mexican accent (Whether authentic or emulating one). The same can be said with Ice Cube’s performance of The Candle Maker, a large-than-life spiritual deity. It just doesn’t seem to completely mesh well with the rest of the cast.
That being said, the two other spiritual deities fare much better. Both Kate de Castillo as La Muerte and Ron Perlman as Xibabla seem to be having fun doing their respective roles (A godly romance of love and hate) and honestly seems a little intriguing more so than the film’s love triangle. Other notable voice talents, in minor and supporting roles, include Hector Elizondo as Manolo father’s Carlos Sanchez, Cheech Martin as Pancho Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias as Pepe Rodriguez, Danny Trejo as Skeleton Luis, and Christina Applegate as Mary Beth, bookending the beginning and ending of the film.
Lastly, the film has a unique approach of incorporating songs with a mariachi / Latin flavor to them, interjecting songs from modern artist like Radiohead and Mumford & Sons to older artist like Rod Stewart and Elvis Presley. It’s also worth mentioning that both Diego Luna Zoe Saldana also provide their own singing for the film. (Both are pretty good for not being professionally singers).
Mexican folklore and animation collided in The Book of Life. Jorge R. Gutierrez’s cartoon feature is a dazzling and visual colorful that carries an intriguing premise of celebrating the Mexican “Day of the Dead” heritage in a safe and kid friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s conventional plot and narrative elements weigh the feature down, finding its place just out of reach from other giants of animation (DreamWorks and Pixar). Still, despite its shortcomings, The Book of Life was entertaining and enjoyable to watch, offering heart, charm, and a feast for the eyes to filmgoers everywhere.