THE BOOK OF LIFE Review: Blank Pages
When a film is heavily promoted with “From Producer Guillermo del Toro,” certain cinematic expectations are automatically set. While the statement doesn’t explicitly mean the viewer will get a del Toro film, it certainly implies something akin to, “If you like the films of del Toro, you’ll love this film.” The statement also suggests del Toro may have had creative influence on the film (like producers have never done THAT before), thus improving the film and adding greater value to it. But while associating del Toro with a film gives the film more cinematic heft out of the gate, it also increases the expectation that del Toro’s creative influence has made the film a better product. It’s an expectation that the animated film The Book of Life struggles to live up to.
La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Remembered, the place where souls live happily in eternity so long as their loved ones remember them. Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, the place where souls suffer in obscurity, having long been forgotten by their loved ones. On the annual festival known as the Day of the Dead, the pair spots a trio of children: Maria and the two boys who battle for her affection, Manolo and Joaquin. Xibalba, tired of ruling his land, bets La Muerta that in the future, Joaquin will win Maria’s heart; La Muerta takes Manolo. The winner rules the Land of the Remembered.
Fast-forward to adulthood and the trio are reunited, having gone their own ways to live their lives. Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) has returned home from school; Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) is on the verge of becoming a great bullfighter; and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a war hero. But things are not quite as they seem. While Manolo has been trained by his father to be a great bullfighter, he’d much rather be a musician. As for Joaquin, he seeks revenge against the bandit Chakal, who killed his father, but he does so wearing a medal that was sneakily given to him by Xibalba (in disguise) – a medal that prevents any harm from coming to him.
When the contest looks like it’s going La Muerta’s way, Xibabla intervenes with trickery that keeps Maria on earth but sends Manolo to the Land of the Remembered, where the young man is reunited with his ancestors but separated from his love.
The Book of Life can best be summarized as a film of two extremes. On one end of the spectrum is the film’s gorgeous animation.
The story is actually told to a group of children on a class trip by a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate), who uses wooden figurines as props. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez maximizes the marionette-like construct of the figures and presents his characters with the same characteristics, from skin texture to body joints to overall body movement, all accented by sharp lines. However, Gutierrez doesn’t sacrifice emotion, allowing his animated wooden dolls to have a full range of facial expressions. All of these characteristics hold true once the action moves to the Land of the Remembered, where everyone is a skeleton of their former self.
It’s also in that afterlife realm that the already vibrant and rich animation finds a higher gear and simply dazzles, with a jaw-dropping reveal of the Land of the Remembered that is reminiscent of the wow-factor of the ballroom scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The attention to detail is staggering.
Gutierrez’s direction is excellent. He has a wonderful sense of scope, but it’s his use of character motion (and slow-motion) that is inspired, particularly in the bullfighting scenes and in a labyrinth scene that is one for the animation books. His camera movement is fluid and he keeps the viewer constantly engaged. It’s unfortunate he is saddled with the other end of the film’s spectrum – a dreadful screenplay he-co-wrote with Douglas Langdale.
Just as the film is soaked in glorious visual details, so to is it drowning in endless clichés. The male leads are given tired paternal shadows to live in (one wants to break away from the family tradition his father expects him to follow while the other wants to avenge his father’s death). There is never a sense of true peril, either in the Land of the Remembered or in the circumstances surrounding Joaquin’s magic medal. And there are constant reminders of things found in Disney movies, including The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Lion King, and (worst of all, in the Ice Cube-voiced Genie-like character, Candle Maker) Aladdin. In all of these cases, Disney did it better.
The film’s ending is as standard a third act as you can get from a kid’s movie.
Also disappointing is the film’s music. While the score and the original songs are pleasant, in a very non-Disney like move there is no real memorable number. A hit record isn’t mandatory with an animated film (the Toy Story franchise has done just fine without one), but this animated film sets up to have one, particularly with its great Mexican flair. Also in the film are famous pop songs reimagined with a Latin flavor – “I Will Wait” from Mumford and Sons, “Just a Friend” from Biz Markie, and Radiohead’s “Creep” are the big three – but only bits of those play in the film, which make them feel awkwardly inserted.
This is the first film to come from Reel FX Animation Studios, and as visuals go, they have come to play. But if there is anything we’ve learned while living in the Pixar Era, it’s that a film’s story is equally as important as its animation. It takes more than fancy imagery (and a famous person’s name on the poster) to make a quality animated film in 2014. Despite its gorgeous visuals and del Toro’s gravitas, The Book of Life is a disappointment.