The Book of Life

Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez

Screenwriters: Jorge R. Gutierrez, Doug Langdale

Starring(Voice): Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum

Subgenre: Fairy Tale, Fantasy

To say that I’ve been looking forward to The Book of Life for months would be an understatement of massive proportions. The trailer promised so much energy, joy, and originality that it was impossible to not be intrigued, and with Guillermo Del Toro’s consistently exciting name attached to the project, it wasn’t a plan to see the movie so much as an ambition. It looked like Corpse Bride set in Mexico, and my life wouldn’t be complete until I could count seeing it among my experiences. Now, I have seen it, and the honeymoon was over before it began. The Book of Life was certainly good, but I walked into the theater expecting to leave with a five-star review in the works. The bias was powerful to love this film, but sadly, it doesn’t succeed at being greater than the sum of its stunning parts; simply put, it’s a 3-star movie with 5-star moments. It’s adequate to entertain children and beautiful to look at, but where it succeeds at going above and beyond artistically just makes the aspects that were skimped on more obvious. Toro, I am sorry, but you could have been so much more.

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.

The Roots of Dystopia Part I: Utopia

by: Janea A. Schimmel

ed. by: Gayle Cottrill

Some time ago, in a previous blog life, I did a look at the Dystopian Genre in a historical sense: what was it, how did it come about in a social sense, and why has it become so popular. In the here and now, the popularity that sparked my earlier article is going just as strong; perhaps more so, as we’re now awaiting the third of four Hunger Games movies rather than hoping the first one would be a worthwhile film experience. So I thought I’d revisit the topic and expand a bit further with an audience willing to read longer pieces (aka, the ramblings of a historian who finds things like genre evolution fascinating). As I have a lot to say on the subject, I’m splitting this article in two. Click Read More to read Part 1.

Today we know the Dystopian Genre as a continuously erupting young adult trend, though it is thankfully more palatable to discerning literary tastes than Twilight. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has quickly taken a place as one of the great works of young adult literature, and rightly so. The work is groundbreaking in terms of content and the expectation that teens don’t need their entertainment watered down or simplified. It hits hard, strikes chords, and has moved a generation raised on Harry Potter into deeper reading waters. Other YA Dystopian works such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Kristen Simmon’s Article 5 and Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties have also helped inspire young Millennials to continue reading, and that’s a fantastic thing. However, the Dystopian Genre is older and bigger than just the current YA trend, and it’s disheartening to me to see that when current mainstream media tackles dystopias, we seem to land in a place where teenage rebellion rules the day more often than not.

The idea behind a utopian book is that it takes place in and around a perfect society, at least in the eyes of the author.

Rewind to more than a hundred years ago. The Victorian Age was one of nearly unequaled hope and enthusiasm for the future. Technological progress was changing the world at an unprecedented speed hitherto never seen in human history. Horses were first replaced by trains and then by automobiles. Medical advances lead to the possibility of surviving complex surgeries like having your appendix removed. Homes were lit not by candles and kerosene, but with carbon monoxide gas and later electricity. There was a popular belief that with technology, all things were possible or soon would be. The world the Victorians lived in was a better place than the world the Victorians’ parents were born to, and the children of the Victorians were expected to change the world in amazing and wonderful ways.

Out of this perennial optimism came a literary genre that is today known as the Utopia. The idea behind a utopian book is that it takes place in and around a perfect society, at least in the eyes of the author. Works that fall into this category date back all the way to Ancient Greece (Plato’s Republic) and the genre takes its name from Sir Thomas Morley's Utopia of the 16th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Utopias become popular as more than something one would read as part of one’s higher education. Victorian philosophies such as Transcendentalism promoted the improvement of self and the world around oneself as one of the most important things someone could do. Philanthropy was not merely a virtue, but something that was expected of those who belonged to a certain class. The ideas of improvement and working towards a utopia manifested itself in world shaking movements like abolition, women’s suffrage, and prohibition, among others. Once a generation who had grown up with the technological wonders of a late industrial society came of age, they began to explore what a true utopia might look like. H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia appeared in 1905, and though it is not one of Wells’ better known works its philosophical influence on early science fiction is hard to miss. Wells has two other utopian novels, Men Like Gods and The Shape of Things to Come, both published at significantly later dates.

Along with the modern marvels of industry came teeming tenements, horrifying workplace accidents and injuries, and grinding poverty.

Sadly, this enthusiasm for the modern world hit some major speed bumps. Along with the modern marvels of industry came teeming tenements, horrifying workplace accidents and injuries, and grinding poverty. Just as in today’s society, improvements in communication technology lead to a greater awareness of these problems as well as soaring crime rates and massive political corruption in cities that were now exploding with people. The interest in technology and the modern era as an inherently better era than what had gone before was waning. In 1908 journalist and novelist Jack London (of White Fang fame) published The Iron Heel, a fascinating book that’s little known today. It’s rare to find such an outspoken rejection of capitalism by an American writer, though it is perfectly placed at the height of the yellow journalism trend that pushed for changes in labor laws, housing law, and fought against the Tammany Hall political machine. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most progressive Presidents the U.S. has ever seen, was in office during its publication and was radically changing the role of government from a laissez faire institution that worked to benefit business (or at least not get in its way) to one that was more vested in and active in the life of the everyday person. That The Iron Heel features socialism predating Soviet Communism is even more remarkable. It’s also one of the first examples where we find the hallmarks of a dystopian novel: an oppressive government/society with a protagonist (usually born within the system) who fights against the oppressive/negative system.

Unyielding optimism in the modern era met a decided roadblock in the first World War. While the United States had seen the devastation of modern warfare in the American Civil War (the truly curious may want to look up some of the finer points of the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of the Wilderness), most European powers had either not had a large conflict using modern technology or that conflict had happened far from home. The loss of life, the sheer number of men who suffered from disfiguring injuries, and the addition of new types of injuries not previously associated with war, such as large burns and nerve damage due to substances such as mustard gas, shocked the Western world as the war ground on. The following two decades highlighted a sharp divide between those still embracing a progressive struggle towards utopia and those who saw the modern world as more of a curse than a blessing.

American society had in a short time become more equal, more inclusive, and safer.

In the United States, largely untouched by the ravages of the Great War, the end of the war seemed to signal a victory for utopian progressives. In 1918, the city of New York appointed its first medical examiner, Dr. Charles Norris. To us today, this seems like a common sense move. Who else but a doctor would be able to determine how a person died, if foul play was involved, and then be able to determine what that foul play even was? Previous to 1918, Americans instead relied on sometimes ill-trained coroners who would name the cause of death as something as vague as old age. When foul play was involved, coroners were infamously easy to bribe in some areas of the country. A move to a medical doctor to examine the dead was a move towards hard science that very quickly gave rise to forensic science, with the eventual result that murder by poisoning has been nearly eliminated from American society.

In 1920 the United States passed two constitutional amendments. One prohibited the making and sale of alcohol other than for medical reasons, and the other guaranteed women the right to vote, effectively extending citizenship to half the adult population. These, along with the extention of science and scientific thinking (not just technology) into everyday life seemed like a huge move forward towards a utopian society for progressive-minded people. American society had in a short time become more equal, more inclusive, and safer. However, early theories on woman’s suffrage quickly proved wrong. Women were not more likely to vote for progressive or reform-minded politicians or legislation simply because of their gender, but became as diverse and unpredictable a voting block as men. Rather than spurring on an even greater era of reform than what had happened in the first two decades of the century, women’s suffrage and prohibition seems to have used up nearly all major progressive political currency for the decade to follow. It was not until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s that progressive reform and government policies make a major appearance on the national stage.

Prohibition was the ultimate failure of utopian minded progressivism in the United States, a blow from which it never recovered.

Prohibition itself left a bad taste in many Americans’ mouths during the 1920s. Rather than causing alcoholics to stop drinking, it instead limited the availability of alcohol that was safe to drink due to improper distillation as well as government requirements of the lacing of legal alcohol with poison to prevent its consumption by humans. In New York City Dr. Norris noted that death by alcohol poisoning had risen exponentially during the first few years of Prohibition, and had showed no signs of slowing down the longer the law remained in effect. Additionally, Americans moved from primarily drinking beer, wine, and cider to hard liquor like whiskey. This change in prefered drink was driven entirely by the fact that a smaller amount of alcohol was needed in order to become drunk, but even with alcohol that was safe to drink alcohol poisoning was a great risk. Most famously, Prohibition caused a black market to form across the country that lined the pockets of violent criminals and corrupt officials. Violent crime centered around the making, distribution, and sale of alcohol exploded almost overnight. In short, Prohibition was the ultimate failure of utopian minded progressivism in the United States, a blow from which it never recovered.

The utopian literary genre also never recovered, even in its infant state. H.G. Wells’ last utopian work, The Shape of Things to Come, was published in 1933, the same year Prohibition was repealed. After the 1930s there are only sporadic contributions to the utopian genre, and some have markedly more to do with the formula followed by The Iron Heel than the philosophies of H.G. Wells.

Next week I’ll take a look at the end of utopian ideals in Europe following World War I and the birth of a fully fledged dystopian genre. Stay tuned!

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