“The Book of Life” Review

The Day of the Dead Is Remarkably Alive

A Film Review by Akash Singh

NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!

We have become accustomed to the general trend of 3-D computer animated films and while a few of them stick out as being brilliant in their storytelling and visual experience, The Book of Life is one of the most unique experiences I’ve had at the films in a good while. From the production hands of Guillermo del Toro, the film espouses a taste in the exquisite and odd as is expected. The Book of Life is one of the most creatively stylized films I’ve ever seen, bursting with a color and panache nearly unparalleled. It’s a children’s movie that isn’t afraid of the concept of death, embracing it as the chief thematic unifier, presenting it to children as not something to be feared, but to be embraced and understood. The score is fantastic, if the songs are not so. But kudos to 20th Century Fox and everyone involved with the project that actually embraced Mexican culture so wholeheartedly and didn’t turn the film into a caricature.

The plot revolves around a small town in Mexico called San Angel (which is a little too much, but whatever), in which there are two suitors named Manolo and Joaquín vying for the love of María. There are two gods that factor into the story as well. La Muerte is the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, where spires live on with their memories kept alive by their loved ones. Xibalba is the other god who rules the Land of the Forgotten, where souls fall into decay because no one remembers them. At the Day of the Dead festival, the two fellow divine figures spot the love triangle and make a bet as to who will win the heart of María. Thus the plot begins with a lovely twist seen nowhere in the trailer and as Manolo enters the Land of the Remembered, the visual extravaganza of the film truly explodes.

It’s a supremely well told story that benefits from little general knowledge of the Day of the Dead and Mexican culture in general amongst many in the audience who will go to see the film and in that regard alone, the movie is an extraordinary achievement. What makes it even more worthy of a watch is how well it portrays Mexican culture and avoids any traits of xenophobia. In that same regard I applaud the film for embracing the concept of death and telling an entire story around it. Far too often children’s films play it safe (and even films not tailor-made for children … Marvel) and don’t allow for the type of darkness that can be presented without it overwhelming the entire narrative. Children’s movies sometimes deliver the spectacle without adding any sort of nuance or depth and The Book of Life throws that fear out of the window. Nor does the film attempt to tell the tale of death in a preachy sort of way. It embraces the spectacle and tradition of the Day of the Dead, narratively exemplifying why death is not something to be feared. Kudos.

Not everything works, but they’re not important enough factors for you to risk eschewing the film altogether. The score from Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams is absolutely tremendous, bopping along with an exuberant sense of buoyancy. The songs, however, while not being bad, aren’t that exciting and easily forgettable. The pacing is clumsy at times, especially with the opening, and the fight at the end feels like an unnecessary third act sequence that’s too generic for such a smart film despite it’s execution. But the animation is gorgeous and the voice cast is superb. The characters are drawn in a tremendously layered script that allows them to feel like actual people (and in some cases, spirits) and not generic ideas of spunky, arrogant, and or kind. They’re complicated and it works. The film presents the concept of how important ancestors are in Mexican culture and what the ideas of ancestors mean to so many. It’s perhaps the best study of ancestry in a film like this since Mulan. Go see The Book of Life and revel in one of the best surprises of the year.

Great

8.5/10

Title: Book of Life

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Jorge Gutierrez

Produced by: Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Guillermo del Toro, Carina Schulze

Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum

Music: Gustavo Santaolalla, Paul Williams

Editing: Ahren Shaw

Production Company: Reel FX Creative Studios, 20th Century Fox Animation

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Running Time: 95 minutes

Release Dates: October 12, 2014 (Los Angeles premiere), October 17, 2014 (United States)

Image Courtesy: The Film Stage

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