The Book of Life works as a visually dazzling celebration of Mexican culture, though its conventional kids' movie elements leave something to be desired.
The Book of Life takes place a long time ago in Mexico, where a trio of childhood friends are separated and each instructed on how to fulfill the expectations of their respective families. Years later, the three reunite as young adults: sensitive bull-fighter Manolo (Diego Luna), whose true passion is music; macho, but good-natured, soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who's regarded as a hero by his hometown; and intelligent, forward-thinking, Maria (Zoe Saldana), who is pursued romantically by both Manolo and Joaquin.
However, unbeknownst to the three mortals, the rulers of the two underworlds - the angelic, if hot-tempered, La Muerte (Kate de Castillo) and her lover, the charming scoundrel Xibalba (Ron Perlman) - have a bet running, about which of Maria's longtime friends will win her heart. When it appears that he might lose that wager, Xibalba takes steps to permanently separate Maria and Manolo - forcing the latter to go on a grand journey across the three worlds, in the hope of being reunited with his love.
Book of Life is the feature directorial debut for animated filmmaker Jorge R. Gutierrez, though the film's marketing has banked heavily on Guillermo del Toro's involvement as producer. The spectacularly colorful animated worlds and character designs featured in Book of Life, as crafted by Reel FX Creative Studios (Free Birds), are very much the film's strongest elements; the narrative and thematic through line, however, ultimately prove to be less impressive.
Thanks to a modern-day story framing device, the main characters in Book of Life are, quite literally, meant to resemble stylishly-designed Mexican wooden figurines. Indeed, as a whole, the film is informed by the traditional aesthetics of the Day of the Dead holiday, resulting in a 3D computer-animated feature that looks unlike any other wide film release in recent memory. Gutierrez and his animators combine these evocative and fantastical visuals with appropriately cartoony mechanics and larger than life vocal performances, allowing the movie to maintain a frantic and frequently dizzying feel throughout its swiftly-paced 90-minute(ish) runtime.
In short: you might not be sure what you just watched once Book of Life is over, but you'll be certain that it looked great... whatever it was. That holds true regardless of the viewing format, so 3D isn't a necessity here (though it only enhances the overall experience).
Most Hollywood studio animated features nowadays blend impressionism with photo-realism, but Book of Life instead delivers stylized caricatures of everything (people, animals, buildings, and so on), which helps to make up the difference when the film's relatively moderate animation budget ($50 million) begins to show. Similarly, the movie generally makes effective use of cinematic storytelling techniques (montage, for example) to keep things moving along smoothly, even when its script work (like the musical sequences that attempt to re-spin hit pop songs and other forced attempts at being "hip") and the dialogue comes up short.
Book of Life is best when offering a simple and fun introduction to certain traditional Mexican cultural/spiritual beliefs (for filmgoers of all ages), as well as when it explores certain relevant issues - such as how traditional practices and gender roles can evolve without being completely abandoned. However, much of that material is restricted to the movie's first act; by its half-way point, Book of Life has become a more traditional hero's journey - one that wraps up with a standard, yet hollow "big showdown" during its third act. The screenplay by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale also falls short when it comes to providing suitable arcs for certain key players (Maria, in particular).
A number of the character archetypes and tropes in Book of Life resemble those that were commonly found in Disney animated films in the 1990s - something that makes sense as Langdale got his start as a writer on movies like The Return of Jafar and the Darkwing Duck cartoon series - and, as such, feel a bit outdated for an animated feature releasing in 2014. However, despite the occasional overt similarities to famous characters from Disney's animation catalogue, the main players in Book of Life are given enough depth to come off as more than just cheap knockoffs.
Diego Luna as Manolo offers a nice mix of innocence, heart, and naivety with his vocal performance, while Zoe Saldana brings the right mix of sweetness and attitude as she voices Maria... though neither role is a real stretch for the respective actors. Similarly, Joaquin lies very much in Channing Tatum's wheelhouse (read: the good-natured, but oblivious hunk played often for comedic effect), though having Tatum use his regular voice - in a film where other cast members either have an authentic Mexican accent or makes a passable attempt at one - makes things feel a little off, whenever Joaquin speaks. (There's a 22 Jump Street joke in there somewhere, but moving on...)
The supporting cast in Book of Life all do fine work handling their characters' larger than life personalities, be it Ron Perlman and Kate de Castillo as the sparring immortal lovers and lords of the underworlds, or Ice Cube as another key mystical figure, known as The Candle Maker (he's to this movie what Robin Williams' Genie is to Disney's Aladdin, in some ways).
Other voices you may recognize (though you might have trouble remembering exactly which character they brought to life after the movie is done) include Héctor Elizondo, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, and Danny Trejo; all do a solid job handling what tend to be very cartoonish personalities. Lastly, Christina Applegate provides the voice for a chipper museum tour guide in Book of Life's present-day scenes; it's ultimately a bit of a throwaway role, but Applegate makes the most of what she's given to work with.
The Book of Life works as a visually dazzling celebration of Mexican culture, though its conventional kids' movie elements leave something to be desired. It's worth seeing on a big screen for the eye candy alone, but its narrative shortcomings ultimately result in a movie that's just "good" - and thus, something that you can also just wait to watch at home (where you'll still be able to appreciate the film's eye-popping colors on Blu-ray or a similar format).
The Book of Life is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 95 minutes long and is Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.
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