The Book of Life (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Book of Life is currently out in wide theatrical release.
For the last 19 years, animation has been held to the Pixar standard, which is not an easy bar to hit, even for Pixar on occasion. Some other studios produce films up to that standard, like DreamWorks, but often they fall flat or just hit a mildly entertaining note. The Book of Life does manage to make it above mildly entertaining, but does run into some pacing issues in the second half.
The Book of Life does manage to make it above mildly entertaining, but does run into some pacing issues in the second half.
Every person’s life story is recorded in the Book of Life so says museum tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) to a bunch of detention kids that come in tough but quickly lose their edge. She tells them a story of love and divine interference from the Book of Life and re-enacts it with wooden dolls, which is where the actual story gets its unique and wonderful visual design.
The story is that of Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) who are best friends since childhood. Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with Maria at an early age and then become the subject of a bet between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of The Land of the Remembered and who feels all people are good at heart and her apparently on-again-off-again lover Xibulba (Ron Pearlman, who I think had to be in it since Guillermo del Toro produced the film) who rules The Land of the Forgotten and feels all people are out for themselves. These lands are the separate realms of the afterlife, in case you were wondering. The bet is that if Xibulba wins, he gets to rule The Land of the Remembered, an eternal party that is festively decorated and everyone is happy. If he loses, he is not to interfere with the land of the living ever again. La Muerte bets that Manolo will marry Marie, while Xibulba bets on Joaquin and stacks the deck in Joaquin’s favor when he’s a child. He gives Joaquin a medallion whose wearer can neither be harmed or die. When he grows up, he is the town hero while Manolo is a bull fighter in training, the family business, but what he wants to be a musician (which is frowned upon by his family, touting the family tradition of bull fighting).
Long story short, when Xibulba thinks he’s going to lose he tricks Manolo into dying to see Maria again, whom he thinks has died, he travels to The Land of the Remembered, meets his ancestors and his long deceased mother, travels to the Land of the Forgotten and eventually makes a bet so he can return to the land of the living to see Maria again.
The biggest problem with the story is the framing sequences with the museum. They are there strictly for exposition and tell a great deal that could have been shown to us if we had just been dropped into the world.
The biggest problem with the story is the framing sequences with the museum. They are there strictly for exposition and tell a great deal that could have been shown to us if we had just been dropped into the world. The co-writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale seem to want to dumb everything down by inserting these sequences. The only time bridging sequences like this worked was in The Princess Bride and even then they weren’t particularly necessary. They break the action when they cut to them in the midst of the story and really felt unnecessary right from the start.
Another issue is the film starts to drag in the last half, when Manolo is trying to get back to the land of the living. It just becomes redundant after a bit and really stops the film cold. The pacing slows down considerably and there is a point where you can just feel the momentum drop off, and I think that moment is when the Candle Maker appears. He’s voiced by Ice Cube whose voice is really out of place in a film populated by actors with or putting on a Latin accent. He felt so out of place here that it threw me straight out of the film. I think Ice Cube is a talented actor, but here he just didn’t work. Add to that some tired jokes that didn’t even play that well with an audience full of kids and the prospects for the film start to drop off.
That’s where the visuals really save the film. While in the main story, the cleverness of the character design and the world it takes place in is truly wondrous. The people look like the wooden dolls that are displayed for the kids in the framing scenes and that makes everything look unique and fresh. The scenes in different realms of eternity are vivid and alive despite the fact the inhabitants are all dead.
These visuals make everything pop and gives the film a look that is all together unique. It is refreshing to see something this visually inventive in a time when many computer-animated films have started to look very similar (with other notable exceptions like The Lego Movie and the How to Train Your Dragon series) and it’s ultimately for the visuals alone that this film succeeds.
The actors do their fair share in keeping the film afloat as well. Luna shines brightest, but the other actors do quite well for themselves as well. Ron Pearlman is wonderful as always and Tatum has a little fun mocking his public persona. Add to that supporting and bit parts for Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin and Gabriel Iglesias and the cast is fairly well rounded. The only person miscast is, like I said, Ice Cube who really has no business being in a film that claims Mexico is the center of the universe and the story takes place on an island in the exact center of Mexico (which places it directly above the eternal realms).
It’s such a shame that the script bogs down this otherwise delightful film. If it weren’t for those museum scenes that tell us information that is then explained within the story, making them seemed tacked on to clarify for younger children, the film would be vastly better even with the prevalence of tired and unfunny jokes. Still, the film is worthwhile and fun, especially for kids and should be sought out for the visual design if nothing else.
These visuals make everything pop and gives the film a look that is all together unique. It is refreshing to see something this visually inventive in a time when many computer-animated films have started to look very similar. It’s such a shame that the script bogs down this otherwise delightful film.