Rewind Movie Review: "The Book of Life"

During October, I reviewed The Book of Life on COLOR’s Tumblr page. In case you didn’t see it before, here’s the reprint.

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The Book of Life

Director: Jorge R. Guiterrez

Screenwriter:  Jorge R. Guiterrez, Douglas Langdale

Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Plácido Domingo, Eugenio Derbez, Gabriel Iglesias, Dan Davarro, Grey DeLisle, Cheech Marin, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Guillermo del Toro, Ice Cube

Synopsis (20th Century Fox):  From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez comes an animated comedy with a unique visual style. THE BOOK OF LIFE is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears. Rich with a fresh take on pop music favorites, THE BOOK OF LIFE encourages us to celebrate the past while looking forward to the future.

Review: The Book of Life is a charming film on its own, but it’s real importance comes from how it unapologetically revels in the Mexican culture and traditions like the Day of the Dead. This, sadly, is also the reason it took Jorge R. Guiterrez nearly 14 years to get Hollywood to buy his idea. Now, though, I think the joke’s on Hollywood. This film is teaching a new generation of kids to be curious about the other cultures and traditions of the world, something I don’t believe children are taught enough of these days. As an example: we’re currently in the throes of people painting their faces like sugar skulls; it would behoove everyone to know what holiday sugar skulls belong to and why the holiday itself is important.

I really admired the film on many levels. First, the voice actors were largely entertaining. The stand out to me was Diego Luna as the film’s hero and heart, Manolo. Luna conveyed Manolo’s sensitive soul and bravery with aplomb.

Channing Tatum’s character, Manolo’s frenemy Joaquin, was an interesting character since in another movie, he might have been made into a low-grade villain. Instead, he’s more of a conflicted person trying to live up to his late military hero’s father’s legacy and falls into stardom thanks to also-not-really-a-villain Xibalba (Ron Perlman).

Tatum gives a standard performance, but I’m not condemning his performance by writing that. I think he did what was asked of him—he certainly didn’t leave his character wanting, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have added a little more something-something to his performance. However, Joaquin’s story was a little rushed—we don’t really fully explore his mental pressure from his father’s legacy. His worries color his character, but they are also largely kept to the edges of the film.

Speaking of Xibalba, Perlman is fun as the lord of the realm of the forgotten. He gives Xibalba the slight evil edge the character needs (he does give Joaquin a magical medal and cons Manolo into his own death, after all). But Xibalba’s also weirdly lovable and playful, especially when he’s sharing scenes with his wife/ruling partner La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, but Christina Applegate when she’s museum tour guide Mary Beth). La Muerte is beautiful, alluring, maternal and a little dangerous, and del Castillo provides those attributes to the character with grace.

Zoe Saldana as Maria, Manolo and Joaquin’s best friend (and the object of their affections), is great, but like Tatum, her character isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. For what she was given, Saldana does an awesome job, but it would have been nice to know more about Maria as her own person instead of how she’s defined by Manolo and Joaquin. Yes, there’s a little bit about her being a bookish, kung-fu fighting free thinker, but it almost feels like an afterthought, as if to tell the audience, “We realize Maria’s mostly an object of desire, so here are some ‘girl-power’ attributes!” Even still, I like her.

The only voice actor who seriously dragged the movie down was Ice Cube as the Candle Maker. His voice is jarring, to say the film. He’s considered a rapper-turned-actor, but not all actors make great voice actors. Being able to sell a line on screen is completely different than selling a line when you’re in a recording booth. His performance felt wooden and out of place, especially when “Today was a good day!” was crowbarred in.

Fans of animation will like the imagination explored in the character designs, who are wooden figures the tour guide uses to tell kids the film’s story. It was fun seeing how the character’s toy-like properties are included into the action, such as one character’s arms falling off. The toy-like attributes also help sell the story’s main thrust—death—in a much more palatable way to today’s kids. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, but I seem to remember a lot more death in my programming before children’s programs and films began focusing less on real world issues, such as death, especially unexpected death.  One of my earliest memories about death in my programming were episodes of The Human Race Club (which focuses on the unexpected death of a classmate), Sesame Street (which focused on the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper) and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood(which focused on death in a general sense). Don’t even get me started on The Lion King, which taught me the harsh truth that my parents could die. Death in children’s programming was done to teach children the realities of life, but today’s programming doesn’t seem to focus on that in an effort to “shield” kids. In short, it’s been a while since a film featured death and its consequences.

In short, this movie is a fun, important film to watch if you want to be entertained and educated. Some other detractors to the film include the tour guide conceit, which makes the film start a bit slower than I’d have liked, and some of the songs feel out of place. But soon after this, the film picks up and becomes much more of a well-oiled machine.

Rating: **** (out of five)

Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Reel FX Productions II, LLC.