I was really excited for The Book of Life when I first saw the trailers. I’ve always been a deep lover of animated movies and not only did this one look like a fun, interesting, and beautifully designed movie, it had a fresh style set around Mexican traditions and lore. However, as is the case with most of the shows I review here, I never got around to seeing it in theaters, and it wasn’t until I saw it on Netflix that I finally committed to sitting down and watching it.
And I’ve got to say, it was pretty underwhelming.
There’s definitely a lot of good ideas on deck, but the whole movie reeks of something that ran through the Hollywood production machine a few times, and what life and originality it could have had has been supplemented for something more safe and “kid friendly.” If for nothing else, The Book of Life serves as an example of how NOT to do a movie like this.
So, how have you not watched The Book of Life?
The Book of Life, at its core, is the story of three friends: Manolo, played my Diego Luna; Joaquin, played by Channing Tatum; and Maria, played by Zoe Saldana. These three have been friends forever, however both Joaquin and Manolo both have eyes for Maria and constantly compete against each other for her affections.
During the Dia de los Muertos festival, the two rulers of the underworld La Muerte, played by Kate del Castillo, and Xibalba, played by Ron Perlman make a bet on which one of the boys will win Maria’s heart. La Muerte chooses Manolo, while Xibalba chooses Joaquin. The stakes? If Xibalba wins, he gets to leave his decrepit, somber Realm of the Forgotten and move to La Muerte’s Realm of the Remembered where the Dia de los Muertos party never ends. Wanting to cement his victory, Xibalba disguises himself and gives Joaquin a special medal that shields him from all harm and grants him immortality.
The next day, the kids accidentally cause a stampede of bulls in the town. It’s here that Manolo discovers he has the gift of bullfighting, much like all the men in his family before him. Using his talent, and Joaquin secretly using his medal, they manage to get rid of the bulls, however Maria’s father is sick of her tomboyish ways and sends her to a monastery to live among the nuns and learn to be a proper lady.
The years pass and the kids grow into adulthood; Joaquin becomes a soldier like his father, and Manolo becomes a matador, though secretly he wants to be a mariachi singer, believing that bullfighting is wrong. Maria returns on the day of Manolo’s big bullfight, and when he chooses not to slay the bull, she is moved by his compassion. The two quickly fall in love, however when Xibalba realizes he may lose the bet, he tricks Manolo into thinking Maria has died from a snake bite and offers him the chance to go to the realm of the dead to retrieve her soul. When he finds that her soul is not there, he must go on a hero’s quest to reclaim his own soul and return to his love.
Meanwhile, a pack of ruthless banditos have found out about Joaquin’s medal and vow to take it by force, laying waste to the entire village, and then all of Mexico. This creates the tension of the second and third act since if everyone dies, there will be no one left to remember the dead and keep their souls alive in the Realm of the Remembered.
Now before I get into what’s wrong with this movie, let me just give credit where credit is due, I loved the design of this movie. The characters all look great, the designs for the Realm of the Remembered are beautiful and colorful and I really did love how everyone looks like little puppets. It really did create the illusion that this was like a story or a play, yet still feeling very much like a living breathing world. It wears it’s Mexican influence with pride, especially in the Realm of the Remembered, with the characters all resembling the painted skulls most associated with the festival.
Now let’s start with this movies first problem, its story. It’s really not a bad story, but it’s so poorly told. Just writing that synopsis makes my head spin. With such a complex and layered story at an hour and a half runtime, the film is constantly introducing new ideas and it all has to happen very quickly so the movie never takes the time to properly to fully explore those ideas.
Take for instance, the romance plot. At the start of the film, the two boys are play fighting over who would win the heart of Maria, and Maria very boldly states that her heart isn’t a prize to be won. It seems as if this is going to be a plot point, establishing a love triangle of some sort, or even the idea that the three will always be best friends, despite that Manolo and Joaquin will always fight over her; never be able to win her. However this goes absolutely no where as she almost immediately falls in love with Manolo when she returns as a woman. Which is made worse by the fact that she’s constantly being pushed towards Joaquin by her father, (who is also the mayor…I think?) since marrying the town’s greatest hero is what would be best for the town and its people. But you can clearly see that she’s got no interest in him, so why the movie wastes time driving in that point makes no sense. What’s more, as adults Manolo and Joaquin never really fight over Maria, and aside from one pretty powerless scene their shared love for the same woman never seems to put any strain on their friendship. If there were an actual love triangle going on there’d be a sense of urgency in Manolo’s quest since we as the viewers know they should be together.
But the film is neither brave nor smart enough to try anything like that. Even in the idea that Maria could be a functioning, normal woman and be attracted to both Manolo and Joaquin; attracted to Manolo’s heart and soul, and attracted to Joaquin’s rockin’ bod. Sure, the latter is a little more selfish, but humans are selfish creatures, and not making her the Virgin Mary would have made her a much more interesting character.
Then there’s the part where Manolo chooses not to kill the bull during his bullfight. Manolo is constantly being pushed) to be a matador by his father, (also a bullfighter who refuses to accept the idea that Manolo simply wants to be a musician, and he is a kind and gentle soul. So when Manolo chooses not to kill the bull, his father very coldy states “You are no son of mine, and you are not a Sanchez.” If left to dwell on a scene like this, it could have been very heartbreaking and setting up for some emotional growth for both Manolo and his father. But not even one scene later from his father disowning him, he’s back in his house with his father giving him advice on how to pursue Maria, telling him to never give up. There’s absolutely no sense of consistency.
Even Manolo’s “hero’s quest” feels rushed. He’s in the underworld for like, two seconds and all he does is meet his family, including his mother who died when he was a baby, but he reacts to seeing her as stoically and unemotionally as you’d assume from such a tender and gentle soul. The rest is him just faffing about until he meets the Candlemaker, played by Ice Cube doing the laziest attempt at a Genie impression, and then beats a giant flaming demon bull with the power of song (yeah, this thing’s a musical, but we’ll get into that BS in a sec.) Since the biggest sense of urgency comes from him getting out of there as fast as possible, his quest is pointless since he doesn’t really learn anything. The only person who learns anything is his dad, but he has to die, to go to the underworld to learn his lesson so…small comforts I guess?
There’s way too much going on, and the story isn’t helped by the film’s horribly fast pacing. This movie suffers from the same bologna as crap films like many of the new Dr. Seuss movies, in that filmmakers think that kids can’t stay focused for more than three seconds, so they constantly need to have stuff going on, regardless if it ruins the tone, or makes the scene feel of balance.
A vile proponent of this comes from how the movie begins. Contrary to my synopsis, the movie does not start with the story of Manolo, Joaquin and Maria, or La Muerte and Xibalba, but rather in the modern day with a group of scrappy kids from “the detention group” going on a field trip to a museum, where they are told the story of M, J and M.
This is stupid for two reasons. The first being that it ruins the pacing of the movie, since it constantly cuts from the story we’re being told to show how these kids are reacting to it, as if to say “we have no faith in our audience, since they’re children, so we feel the need to remind them how they should be feeling”.
The second being THEY ADD ABSOLUTLEY NOTHING TO THE MOVIE!!! For whatever reason, the film goes out of its way to give each other these kids defining characteristics and personalities, and they’re all totally distinguishable from each other from a design aspect so it’s not like they’re there for the audience to project onto. They serve no purpose to the film. They don’t drive the plot forward in any way, so their only reason for being here is to be told the story. But that’s what the viewer is there for. If they got sucked into the world somehow, and actually interacted with the characters, or had some stake in the events then it would make sense, but they don’t. There sole reason for being here is the aforementioned “remind everybody how they feel” bullcrap.
The film also tries to fill in some of the space that could’ve been used for creating a better story with musical numbers. Now honestly, I had no idea this was going to feature songs, but I was livid the moment I heard the first song.
It comes in after Maria leaves for the monastery and both Manolo and Joaquin say they will wait for her, and it goes into an extended montage of them growing up. And what song do they chose to have Diego Luna, to his credit, quite competently sing? Mumford and Sons: “I will wait.” As if to say “DO YOU GET IT!? THEY’RE WAITING FOR HER! I WILL WAIT!? DO YOU GET IT!?” I couldn’t believe how lazy and uninspired their choices in songs were. And it’s not like that awesome mariachi version of “Eye of the Tiger” that was in Rayman Legends, this is the same folksy song, played at 1% latin influence. The songs continue to push the boundaries in forms like when Manolo sings Radiohead’s Creep after his father disowns him, a litany of horribly chosen songs when Manolo is trying to win Maria’s heart with no help from his mariachi band, ranging from Rod Steward’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” And while these songs are a bit more mariachi styled, it was annoying that given the film’s massive Mexican influence, they didn’t chose more Latin inspired music or even come up with more original songs, two of them being the song Manolo sings to win Maria, and the song he sings to calm the demon bull in the underworld.
And what really bothers me is, what feels like, a rather slapdash attempt at replicating Mexican heritage. In some aspects, it really does feel like this movie doesn’t use actual Mexican culture, rather what white American’s associate with Mexican culture. This becomes most apparent when the only “Mexican music” that you hear playing in the movie is this:
The rest can almost be seen as a white person Mexican checklist. Churros? Check. Sombreros? Check. Mariachi bands? Check. Tequila? Check. Bullfighting? Check. I could go on.
It really surprises me that Jorge R. Gutiérrez directed this train wreck considering he wrote all 26 episodes of “El Tigre” which was actually a pretty well done and funny show. The Book of Life isn’t completely devoid of good ideas and I certainly didn’t hate it, however I enjoyed it much less seeing how much potential was wasted in it. There’s too much going on, it can’t stay focused and it panders to its audience.
I think what really bugs me is how people shrug stuff like this off, saying “well what do you expect, it’s a kid’s movie.” And you know what? No, that’s BS. Kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. I fail to see how films from Dreamworks and Pixar can still be kid’s movies while still being emotional and thought provoking, with well-developed stories and characters. I fail to see how any of the movies I grew up with like Secret of Nhim, An American Tale, and The Black Cauldren could all be kid’s movies while still doing the same. Kids deserve better than this.