The Speculative Post's Review
The Book of Life is a conundrum. Parts of it are, without a doubt, superb and praiseworthy. Conversely, parts of it are shockingly mediocre and conventional. No two aspects of the movie can be scored similarly, providing a challenge to anyone attempting to evaluate it critically. I sincerely wanted to like this movie. Furthermore, as the first production from Reel FX Animation Studios, I hoped it would be Oscar material, a dark-horse wildcard free of big studio constraints and expectations. Maybe I wanted it to be, to the Day of the Dead, what The Nightmare Before Christmas has become to Halloween, endlessly rewatchable when the changing seasons stir nostalgia. In some ways, it lives up to and even exceeds these expectations, and that deserves notice, mention, and respect. In a discouraging number of ways, though, The Book of Life hurts itself with mystifying casting decisions, dull acoustic covers of overplayed pop songs, and broad, uninspired jokes that seem designed to appeal to very young children but fall completely flat.
The film opens, inexplicably and unwisely, with an attractive museum tour guide getting some young delinquents interested in the Mexican Day of the Dead. She accomplishes this by telling them a story, using wooden dolls to illustrate the narrative’s action. Throughout the film, we repeatedly cut back to the kids and their reactions to the story, a la The Princess Bride, and this is the first of the movie’s deadly errors. It’s inane and unnecessary. It takes the viewer totally out of what’s going on, and it has the bizarre effect of seeming like an attempt to coach the audience on how they’re supposed to be interpreting what they’re seeing. It gets tiresome quickly, and it’s a waste of screen time because the story itself is extremely engaging and needs no external explanation. The story’s human characters look like they’re made of wood, and since they’re playthings in the hands of betting immortals, it makes sense stylistically, and we don’t need to be shown the literal dolls in a museum to “get it.” The movie lacks subtlety to an almost insulting degree, and while this isn’t the only example, it’s probably the worst.
We’re soon introduced to the two reigning deities over the realms of the dead. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is the spooky and beguiling ruler of the Land of the Remembered, a colorful place where those with living relatives who continue to celebrate them dwell. Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is the malcontent overseer of the decrepit Land of the Forgotten, where those who are no longer celebrated crumble and vanish from existence, and he convinces La Muerte to participate in a wager with rule over the Land of the Remembered serving as the chief ante. The pieces in their game are a mortal love triangle: La Muerte takes the side of the sensitive musician Manolo (Diego Luna), granting him a pure heart, and Xibalba’s champion is Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a boy who aspires to be a hero and is gifted a medal protecting him from injury and death. The gods agree that whoever marries the object of both their affections, the fetching damsel Maria (Zoe Saldana), will win the wager. This really should have been a story about the friend-rivals Manolo and Joaquin, who are both extremely interesting characters. Both young men are burdened with the legacy of their families and feel the pressure; Manolo wants to play guitar but is pushed toward bullfighting by his father. Joaquin earns acclaim for feats of strength and courage but worries that he can’t live up to the long shadow cast by his father, a deceased war hero. Unfortunately, the story shifts to heavily favor the romance between Maria and Manolo, and this is largely due to a soundtrack lousy with acoustic covers of pop songs. The score could have benefitted tremendously from more original music to match the wildly original visual style; instead, we’re treated to oddly-placed renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” The standout exception is the haunting and original “Apology Song,” which Manolo later sings in the hopes of appeasing the souls of the bulls killed by his family. It’s gorgeous and nestles seamlessly into the scene it appears in. It was the only moment in the movie that took my breath away, and its humble simplicity is what makes it work so well.
The film is at its very best during the handful of moments like these. The Book of Life is bizarre, captivating, and stunning… when it’s exercising an ounce of restraint and subtlety. At its worst, it’s spastic, disorganized, and frustrating, and the movie’s sense of humor is an unrepentant offender. Jokes misfire often, aiming to cater to the lowest common denominator… and still missing. It’s clumsy and loud and desperate, like a dimwitted drunk guy waving his arms around at a party and repeating his “witty” comments in the hopes that no one laughed because no one heard… and not because they weren’t funny in the first place. In a show like Spongebob Squarepants, this brand of humor, relying on the repeated, the broad, and the absurd to buoy a joke, is perhaps more successful and appropriately placed. However, The Book of Life didn’t need to stoop to this, and every drawn-out attempt, as with revisiting that tour guide and her captive audience, seems to sap and waste precious screen time. This is especially true in the film’s second and weakest act; when Manolo dies and has to brave trials in order to return to the land of the living, we’re subjected to the inexplicable decision to cast Ice Cube as the deity responsible for maintaining balance in the universe. He is The Candlemaker, and it is perhaps the most jarring and inappropriate casting decision in recent memory. It’s obvious that it was an attempt to create a subversion of a dignified and intimidating entity by making him goofy and accessible, but the offensive, tedious effect assaults the senses until sneaking glances at one’s watch becomes overwhelmingly tempting. While the Day of the Dead is absolutely about celebrating life despite a macabre backdrop, The Book of Life, again like that drunk guy at the party, takes celebrating too far on several occasions. It just doesn’t know when to stop before it breaks something.
Even worse than the belly-up comedic stylings are the slapdash attempts to conform to cliches in animated movies. They might as well have gone down a checklist to ensure that they were all present. These include, but are not limited to, a cute animal sidekick, a range of obnoxious goofball peripheral characters, and multiple overlong action sequences that add nothing to the story. Throw in a one-dimensional heroine that knows Kung-Fu for a cheap throwaway gag, and you might as well accept that The Book of Life is, in a disappointing number of ways, nothing special.
Except, of course, visually. The film’s saving graces are the incredible artistry, rich palette, and ingenious character designs in every detailed frame. I could look at this movie forever; usually I feel like seeing films in 3-D is overrated, but in this case those glasses added significantly to the experience. The sugar La Muerte is allegedly made of glistens convincingly under her wide sombrero. The grooves and texture of the wooden dolls are palpable. The colorful balloons and parade floats in the Land of the Remembered are a feast for the eyes. I can’t advise someone to pass up the chance to see this movie on the big screen for these reasons alone. Hearing this movie is a different story; The Book of Life is masterfully animated and relates an enchanting and beautiful story, but it missed so many opportunities for excellence that it’s hard not to be angry about its wasted potential.