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Review: The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)

Directed by: Jorge R. Gutierrez

Premise: An animated film. Two young men (voices of Diego Luna and Channing Tatum) compete over a woman (voice of Zoe Saldana) while the supernatural figures La Muerte and Xibalba (voices of Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman) bet on the outcome of their courtship.

What Works: The animation genre has produced some exceptional titles lately such as The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, Frozen, and ParaNorman. The Book of Life is another impressive animated feature and this film is an ambitious and high energy story. All mainstream animated features are presumed to be intended for family viewing and while The Book of Life is certainly suitable for general audiences it has a plot, characters, and filmmaking style that are a little more sophisticated than the typical family fare. The story of The Book of Life has quite a few characters and a lot of narrative strands; the film is primarily about two men who compete for the love of a woman but there is a lot more going on in the movie and the filmmakers balance the various elements of their story. Behind the romantic drama is the story of La Muerte and Xibalba, supernatural overseers of the afterlife who make a bet over the outcome of the love story. That enhances the romantic plotline by putting much more at stake. Manolo and Joaquin, the two lead males of the story voiced by Diego Luna and Channing Tatum, are each distinct characters. The love triangle is a tired cliché but the filmmakers are able to use it effectively here in part because much more rides on the outcome but also because the two males are earnest in their aspirations and have lives outside of the love story. The Book of Life is most distinguished by its visual style. This story is rooted in the Mexican traditions of the Day of the Dead and that allows for some unique images and quite often it is simultaneously ghoulish and beautiful. The animation of The Book of Life combines the style of stop motion and digital animation and it is able to use the strengths of both, giving it the soul of stop motion but also the dynamism and subtlety of computer generated films.

What Doesn’t: The Book of Life is told in a frame narrative; the movie begins and ends with school children visiting a museum and their tour guide tells them the story. The filmmakers use this device to justify the film’s visual style; the characters of The Book of Life look like puppets because they are the figurines of the museum exhibit come to life, much like the characters of The Lego Movie. The picture doesn’t really need the frame structure. Animated features inherently have a mandate to create unusual looking characters and unlike The Lego Movie the outer diegesis of the story doesn’t enhance the audience’s understanding. One frequent problem of animation is that it tends to exacerbate ethnic stereotypes. The Book of Life does make reference to clichés of the Hispanic community but this occurs within a movie that features a voice cast of largely Hispanic actors and was written, produced, and directed by Hispanic filmmakers. That credibility gives the moviemakers some latitude. Furthermore, the makers of The Book of Life are never mean spirited and create central characters that transcend the stereotypes. Where The Book of Life is more problematic is in its regard for the female characters. Maria is a strong, independent woman but she is never much more than a love interest. Her character recalls Jasmine of Disney’s Aladdin; she proclaims that she is more than a prize to be won by the male characters but as a matter of storytelling that’s all she really is. Also like Jasmine, Maria and most of the other women of The Book of Life are imagined with an anorexic body type. This tends to undercut the feminist aspirations of the filmmakers.

Bottom Line:The Book of Life is a fun animated film. It isn’t without its flaws but the picture tells an engaging story with compelling characters and unique visuals.

Episode: #517 (November 9, 2014)