THE BOOK OF LIFE Movie Review – Visually Inventive, Narratively Disappointing
If the poster, ads, and trailer are any indication, The Book of Life, the latest 3D animated film made to capitalize on the family-oriented market, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro played a primary, if not pivotal, role in getting The Book of Life into production. Del Toro, however, only acted as a producer on The Book of Life. Most of the credit (and blame) falls on the shoulders of co-writer and director Jorge Gutierrez. Along with co-writer Doug Langdale, probably added to add Caucasian flavoring to The Book of Life, and, of course, his team of animators, Gutierrez deserves credit for making an accessible take on the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia del los Muertos), albeit a flawed, compromised take. Most likely, those compromises were the result of nervous, jittery financiers reluctant to greenlight an English-language, Latin-American-flavored, animated film like The Book of Life.
Whatever the reason, compromise is clearly evident in the bookend scenes set in the present day as a museum tour guide, Mary Beth (voiced by Christina Applegate), acts as an onscreen storyteller to a group of juvenile troublemakers. Narratively, those scenes add little or nothing, but their function isn’t textual, it’s extra-textual, a vehicle for explaining the seemingly complicated, convoluted mythology behind the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s actually not that complicated or convoluted at all: The afterworld is divided between the perpetually festive Land of the Remembered benevolently ruled by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and the perpetually gloomy Land of the forgotten malevolently ruled by Xibalba (Ron Perlman). Rivals and lovers, La Muerte and Xibalba occasionally bet their respective kingdoms on the lives of mortals, La Muerte out of (possible) boredom, Xibalba out of desperation (he wants a change of real estate).
While the mythology behind the Day of the Dead may not be complicated or convoluted, The Book of Life is both, centering on a decades-spanning romantic triangle between Manolo (Diego Luna), a musician wannabe from a long line of bullfighters, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), an orphan who grows up in the literal shadow of his hero-father’s statue, and the girl of their respective dreams, Maria (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the town’s leader, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui). While Manolo struggles to overcome his father’s objections to his chosen career – a nod toward a typical conflict in traditional Latino families – Joaquin grows up to be a man of action, but not much thought. Nearly invincible in battle, he’s useless when it comes to courting the grown-up, independent-minded Maria. Early on, she makes it clear to Manolo and Joaquin that the decision who to marry is hers, not theirs, though The Book of Life completely sidesteps a third, obvious choice (marrying neither).
Maria’s position in the narrative, as object of desire, as object to be won or lost by Manolo and Joaquin, rather than a character with free will or agency of her own, is just one among several problems with The Book of Life. The inclusion of English-language rock songs, some as old as twenty years (e.g., Radiohead’s “Creep,” Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait,” Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), remixed to a Mariachi sound, suggests the worst kind of compromise, one based on commerce and not art, a decision fueled by a desire to appeal to English-only audiences in the United States rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt and letting them decide for themselves whether The Book of Life would appeal to them. After all, Gutierrez crams enough subplots to fit 3-4 different films, each one a possible point of connection for moviegoers. Unfortunately, all those subplots mean few, if any, are developed with any depth or complexity.
For all of its narrative shortcomings, The Book of Life succeeds visually, often brilliantly. Using Mexican folk art as inspiration, Gutierrez and his team of animators have crafted an animated film that looks like nothing else currently (or previously) in release. Gutierrez paints with a bright, colorful palette, layering each scene with intricately designed objects and off-kilter compositions. The characters in The Book of Life are just as stylized: They’re marionettes, albeit without strings (unless the tour guide narrator counts as the string-puller), broad-shouldered (for the men), and covered with epaulets, buttons, and other indications of their social status (present and hoped-for). It’s there that The Book of Life makes its mark. It’s in the animation that The Book of Life will almost (operative word being “almost”) make moviegoers temporarily forget about its otherwise problematic flaws.