Sunday 26 October 2014

The Book of Life Review: Yes to the Colours, No to the Shape

The time of the year when everything becomes dark and spooky is upon us, and with it arrives its lot of death-themed animated features. This year's iteration is a special one though, as it doesn't deliver the usual Halloween folklore and instead takes us on a journey through Día de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead.
Director Jorge Gutierrez and Producer Guillermo Del Toro come up with a gorgeous-looking movie; ironically, from that great strength The Book of Life also suffers. Clarifications after the break.

The Book of Life revolves around two Gods of the dead: La Muerte, the Lord of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, who rules the Land of the Forgotten. On the Day of the Dead, they stumble upon three kids living in the town of San Angel - María, Manolo and Joaquín - and it's clear that the two boys are in love with María. La Muerte and Xibalba then make a bet with terrible implications for the Lands of the Dead: each God chooses a champion, and the one who chose the guy who will ultimately marry María wins the bet.
La Muerte decides to support Manolo; Manolo is the son of a legendary torero and seems pretty good at fighting bulls, too; but he much prefers playing his guitar.
Xibalba takes his chance on Joaquín, the son of a war hero and a mustache-lover determined to walk in the footsteps of his father and become a hero himself.
So who will win the heart of the beautiful María? Will it be Manolo the musician or Joaquín the hero-wannabe? I'm certainly not answering that now.

The Look of Life
This film is clearly a passion project for writer/director Jorge Gutierrez. And it shows. The Day of the Dead tradition appears to be very important to him and he throws everything he has at it to do it justice.
The result is a beautiful-looking movie. That's what strikes you the most about The Book of Life. Whether you're looking at the town of San Angel or the Land of the Remembered, the worlds that were created for this film are filled with wonderful colours and amazing detail. It is a very stylized look, yes; but that doesn't mean it's bland or poor. On the contrary, each character or set is a complex but tasteful combination of forms and colours.
The living characters, like María, are depicted as wooden figurines, and everything in them is wood, from the hair to the wrinkles. The filmmakers make good use of this natural element as it informs the characters in a clever and subtle way. In the Land of the Remembered, wood is replaced by bone, but the flames in the eyes and the decorative pattern on the faces most than make up for it. In fact, when you enter the Land of the Remembered, everything explodes in terms of light and colours. It's so good that it's a shame we get to spend so little time in it.

The characters all have their very distinctive personalities. They might not be ground-breaking, but they feel real enough and are interesting enough for you to care about them. Some of the secondary characters are extremely funny, too.
There's just one particular individual that seems out of place. Actually, it seemed to me that it was a character from another movie and was thrown here to be cool. Sadly he wasn't cool; he was an unfunny rip-off of Aladdin's Genie.

The jokes work half the time, but I found myself laughing more when the action took place in the Land of the Remembered. Really, it's where everything clicks and certainly what brings the most thrilling part of The Book of Life.

The Book of Rehash
When I say 'No to the shape,' I don't mean it from an aesthetic point of view. On the contrary, I think I made it quite clear that the look of The Book of Life is probably its greatest asset. What I really mean is that I have a problem with the structure of the film and the way it's dumbed down.
Let me explain.
The whole story is seen through the eyes of children visiting a museum about Día de los Muertos, and that's where they are introduced to the book of life - hence the title - and the very story the movie is about. That's why the people of San Angel are seen as wooden puppets, and that's what makes The Book of Life so pretty. Because, quite frankly, the world of the museum is not as cool-looking as the rest of the film. What works perfectly with wooden or skeleton characters works significantly less well with flesh. So that museum concept justifies the way The Book of Life looks and for that I am grateful.
Unfortunately, that's the only positive point I can think of regarding that museum idea; the rest of it feels pointless.
At different key moments of the film you can hear the museum characters talking about what just happened before your eyes. And it adds nothing. It's just paraphrase. Everything doesn't have to be explained in words, especially when you have such a rich world to show it. It only takes you out of the main story for a few seconds. And makes the audience feel dumb.

Another thing that I felt hurt the film were the songs. I thought they belonged to a different kind of movie and, again, were repetitive. They didn't move the story forward. Howard Ashman believed a good song was something you couldn't take out of the movie without hurting the plot and I agree.

That being said, The Book of Life is still a charming journey. It tells a very classic story and isn't misstep-free; but there is enough originality, visual flair and, most of all, sincerity to keep you entertained and delighted throughout.
The sequences that take place in the Land of the Remembered are among the best-looking I've seen this year and are almost worth the price of your movie ticket on their own.
It isn't by any mean an amazing film, but it's a delicious and different kind of Halloween treat.


  1. Christine Cornell Porter26 October 2014 at 01:53

    I'd pay a lot to see the film as it was originally envisioned.

  2. Christine Cornell Porter27 October 2014 at 03:46

    Saw the film again today and realized that there were a few songs that were essential to moving the plot forward, for example, as Manolo wishes to be a singer rather than a matador it is important that he, y'know, sing, and then there is "The Apology Song", It was also a nice background for the growing up montage of Manolo and Joaquin.

  3. It's possible - I'll have to see it again. I just had that feeling that what was said in the songs (or at least some of them) had already been said before.