Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Hollywood is making a change. Because it's Hollywood, it's not an enormous change and it's more than a little half-hearted. Because it's Hollywood, the change is driven by utterly mercenary motivations. But also because it's Hollywood, it has stumbled across a realization that, with a little polishing, could change the world of media as we know it.
That world-changing discovery seems like a simple one and it is: Latino people go to the movies. In fact, they go to the movies a lot. Not surprising, considering just how diverse the American population is, though Hollywood prefers to ignore this fact. But studios have finally begun to take notice of this heretofore unplumbed demographic, making movies that cater to - get this - audiences who aren't just white people.
One of the first truly high-profile movies with this demographic in mind was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the Latin-American spin-off of the decade's most popular horror franchise. But behind this film lie many others that have slowly been shifting the tides. Which now brings us to one of the first wide release Latino-themed kids' movies - The Book of Life.
Where was this guy when I was doing my Sexiest Animated Characters list?
Book of Life begins with a framework narrative that's essentially useless, but as it informs the aesthetic of the entire film - and oh, what an aesthetic it is - it's only fair to begin there. Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) is a puckish museum docent who takes a gaggle of detention kids on a field trip to a special secret room containing the Book of Life, which is full of stories and legends about Mexico. She uses a set of dolls to tell the kids one of the stories, so the bulk of the film is animated like wooden puppetry - more on that later.
SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST ACT - IF YOU SAW THE TRAILER YOU'RE FINE The chosen story centers around two mythical figures: La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) - the rulers of the two underworlds, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten respectively. On el Día de los Muertos, they make a fateful wager. Xibalba is desperate to escape the realm of forgotten souls, so he proposes that each of them place a bet on Maria (Zoe Saldana), a young girl in the nearby town with two best friends/suitors. Xibalba bets on Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a cocky explorer who lives in the shadow of his valiant father, and La Muerte vouches for Manolo (Diego Luna), a sensitive musician whose father expects him to pick up his family's bullfighting legacy.
Although Maria is clearly smitten with Manolo's fumbling charm and put off by Joaquin's egocentric antics, she'd really rather hang out with her pet pig. But Manolo proves his worth, not quite soon enough after Joaquin proposes. After Xibalba pulls a devilish trick, Manolo is sent to the Land of the Remembered and must find his way back to the land of the living and reclaim his true love.
Although he did snag a great look just in time for Halloween so it's not all bad.
It's a children's film and a legend-based tale so once it settles in, it's quite simple to follow. Parents want their kids to be something other than their dreams, but individuality wins out and everyone learns the importance of being themselves. Boilerplate kid movie stuff, really. It's everywhere but the plot that Book of Life rises above the average family-friendly fare.
I've already mentioned the film's Latino themes, but the truly astonishing part is that it depicts a culture with customs, music, legends, values, and aesthetics much different from our own without being hideously offensive! There are some dubious elements that squeak by (including having only two actors of Mexican descent in the lead cast, a smattering white-culture signifiers for Mexico, and the fact that the entire story is framed by a puppet show put on for some dumb-ass white kids), but overall the film shines as a beacon of cinematic diversity with Mexican director Jorge Guiterrez and producer Guillermo del Toro preventing things from getting too out of hand.
And even those rough patches are smoothed over with an ample supporting cast including Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Plácido Domingo, along with strong cultural musicality combining banda and mariachi styles with modern pop-musical lyrics and themes. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see a film presented by somebody other than fussy old white dudes. Their contributions are numerous, it's true, but it's time to let somebody, anybody else take the stand.
And now for something completely different: Protagonists who don't have the delicate complexion of a glass of skim milk.
OK, now that we have the boring but vastly important stuff out of the way, let's focus on how utterly fun this movie is. Regular kiddy movie tropes (an animal sidekick; a Greek chorus) are turned on their heads (an adorable pig is the sidekick; the chorus is a group of hilarious nuns), boisterous characters burst with vividly colorful life, and the music doesn't suck! The great thing about the soundtrack is that it so easily could have drained the vigor from the film but instead injects it with energy.
The Book of Life tends to parlay in anachronisms, a risky venture that works more often than it should. A mariachi Mumford & Sons cover? Strange but it works perfectly. Acoustic Elvis on a Mexican guitar? Lovely. A Radiohead song? Not so much, but it made sense at the time. The three original songs likewise manage to match this tone of marrying children's musical standards with Mexican instrumentation to blissful perfection. On top of it all, Diego Luna's voice - while a tad rough around the edges - provides the perfect DIY kick to these lovably offbeat arrangements.
All of this rolls into a film that's tirelessly heartfelt and kooky while at the same time buoyantly reveling in Mexican culture to its fullest extent. This is portrayed nowhere better than the animation itself, which depicts rickety wooden figures with grace and artistry, pumping them full of vibrant, colorful, joyous life. The film's portrayal of the endless fiestas of the Land of the Remembered is an explosion of brassy, rich, eye-popping technicolor dreamscapes as far as the eye can see.
And the attention to detail in unmatched in modern computer-animated film. Once you notice how Xibalba's pupils are little skulls or the way La Muerte's candles delicately float around the train of her dress, the film will have you in its thrall completely - assuming you have the capacity for childish wonder necessary to take it all in.
And compared to Reel FX Animation's last feature film - 2013's Free Birds, the step up here is about the height of the Tower of Babel.
And the acting is top notch, especially Diego Luna with a brave, limit-stretching vocal performance and Tatum in yet another pristine comic role and WHY AREN'T WE LETTING HIM DO MORE COMEDIES! Personally, I could do without Ice Cube in a comic relief part, but it's not as intrusive as you'd think.
All said, The Book of Life would be an utter masterpiece if it weren't for just a few minute stumbles. As I stated before, the story is a bit too wooden, overusing hoary thematic tropes. And the post-Frozen quasi-feminism doesn't ring as true as it could considering that Maria still tends to be a damsel in distress. But all in all, in the field of children's animation as well as that of 2014 cinema itself, you can hardly do better than this vivid multi-cultural extravaganza.
TL;DR: The Book of Life is an eye-popping experience of grandiose proportions that doesn't mistreat its cultural heritage.
Should I Spend Money On This? Absolutely yes. Don't give Ouija the satisfaction.
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