The following contains spoilers for The Book of Life. You have been warned.
The Book of Life comes to us a bit of an odd duck. It’s a product of Reel FX animation studios, a company that’s been doing visual effects and commercials for some time now, but just beginning to break into the feature film space traditionally dominated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and the occasional Sony picture. It’s being directed by a first time writer/director (Jorge R. Gutierrez)with a background in character design (which shows) and animation, but with the backing of Guillermo Del Toro as a producer and featuring an impressive voice cast that includes Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana. Call it an eclectic and exciting mixture with the potential for some volatility. So what did it produce? Well…
Tim: Well, I’ve been saying for a little while now that this year has one of the strongest animated feature categories we’ve seen in the last few years. The LEGO Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls…for me, The Book of Life didn’t ascend to the level of any of those, but I still found it entertaining. Where do you two come in?
James: As someone who has been slightly off consensus with The LEGO Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Boxtrolls, I felt The Book of Life was fairly well in line with those movies, in that I enjoyed them all visually but felt something was missing with story.
Erik: I’m a bit conflicted with this one. On one hand I did appreciate the visuals – the character design in particular – the voice acting, and even the simplicity of the story for what it was trying to say. At the same time, most of the humor fell flat, at times the characters were a little too broad, the “messages” of the film were about as subtle as a hammer to the face, and there were some questionable soundtrack choices.
Tim: Let’s start with the soundtrack, because in a movie full of slightly odd characters and situations, the choice of music might have been the strangest feature of the whole thing. A friend of mine who saw the movie with me couldn’t stop singing the lyrics from Radiohead’s “Creep” in an hispanic warble when we left the theater. It stuck out, I’ll grant it that, but a lot of the pop music seemed off-kilter to me. Maybe it’s just that I kind of like mariachi and flamenco music and was hoping for more of that.
Erik: The use of pre-existing music was jarring because I was familiar with all of those songs, and hearing them made me think about their original versions, and the comparisons between both versions my mind was making really took me out of the film. It didn’t help that they took “you’re so f***ing special” out of “Creep” (for obvious reasons). But what made it even worse, was the two – I think it was only two – original songs made for the movie, “I Love You Too Much” and “The Apology Song,” because I actually thought they were pretty effective in their respective scenes. They weren’t lyrical or compositional masterpieces, but there was a genuineness to them that just wasn’t present in the pre-existing songs.
James: Had the soundtrack been more consistent I think it may have worked a lot better, or even if had been a full-blown musical. Instead, it just felt like half an idea that was abandoned as the movie went forward. I wasn’t bothered necessarily by the pre-existing songs (even though the choices themselves were strange), but if the entire film had that Moulin Rouge-vibe to it, perhaps it would have made more sense. At least we could have gotten an idea as to what the filmmakers were aiming for.
Tim: I definitely agree with that. The thing that really sold Moulin Rouge from the get-go was that massive party scene that featured a mashup of like three or four different pop songs. I’m not sure if an analogue would have worked for this movie, but something probably should have given. I was actually reminded more strongly of another musical, another animated film: Hercules. And yes, a lot of it had to do with the visual design of some of the characters. Xibalba is a stand-in for Hades, Maria’s long hair makes her look just like Meg, and Zeus even makes a return under the guise of the Candle Maker. There are story parallels, too, with the hero going into the underworld to rescue his love, being tricked by the bad guy, and succeeding anyways.
Erik: I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes sense. Both do take inspiration from mythology, and you tend to see common archetypes and stories across various cultures. Although I did like that unlike Hades, Xibalba wasn’t a cut-and-dry villain – actually there seem to be a lot of those in this year’s animated fare: Snatcher in Boxtrolls, President Business in LEGO Movie.
James: Hadn’t thought of the comparison to Hercules either, but I like that. On that note, the character designs were probably my favorite part of the film. They all felt like major set pieces in their own right and one of the most inventive aspects of the film as a whole.
Tim: What did you think of the wood puppet design specifically? I thought it was kind of cool aesthetically, but the framing device that “allows” it I thought was pretty clunky. I thought it looked good enough to justify its own existence without explanation.
James: I think I was responding to the characters more as individual art pieces rather than compliments to greater whole.
Erik: I can’t immediately think of any pieces of animation with similar character designs – unless you’ve seen director Jorge Gutierrez’s show, El Tigre, of course. They struck a decent balance of pretty and ugly – although the ugliness was mostly relegated to the supporting characters and villains.
Tim: Yeah, like the general (Maria’s father), for instance, with the tiny upper half of his face and the huge bottom half. That actually bothered me a little bit. I had trouble unifying the two in my mind. I kept just seeing the top half and wondering why the bottom half was so weird. On the whole, though, I did really like the aesthetic of the movie, especially for the interlude into the Land of the Remembered. I really wish more of the movie had been set there, that looked like way too much fun.
James: Some of the most beautiful (and unusual) animation was featured in that sequence. Since the story itself was rather predictable and I found myself bored from time to time with the drama, I found myself kind of luxuriating in the colorful art work. The Land of the Remembered sequence was one of the few that I felt worked on an emotional level as well.
Erik: I did love the Land of the Remembered, but it ties in to one of my biggest criticisms of the film. In any story, be it a book, movie, television series, or whatever: make the most interesting part of it the focus. The Land of the Remembered and its inhabitants were far more interesting than anything going in the human world – even if it did have a bandit with mechanical arms. Although Manny’s journey into the underworld (so to speak) took up a decent chunk of the film, the trip just wasn’t long enough. I was hoping we’d see more of Manny’s dead family members and learn more about them. Like those skeleton twins, what was their story? They fought in some revolution, apparently. Couldn’t we have heard more about that?
Tim: I agree that it seemed like a criminally underused part of Manny’s arc, but the one thing I appreciate most about the fact that, despite the flaws you just mentioned, the movie spent most of its time in the real world is that it enabled the movie to be significant as a cultural communicator, whereas a movie that existed solely, or even predominantly in the underworld would have come across more as a pure fantasy. I do think the movie does a good job of communicating traditional Mexican culture and some of the philosophy behind it, even if it does these things on mostly a surface level. The fact that there’s a kid’s film that does this at all is pretty cool to me.
James: I agree the film does a decent job as a primer on this facet of Mexican heritage. I appreciate that and wish more films (animated or not) would take a stab at other cultural folklores. Yet, at the same time, I think there’s too many muddled things going on here at once that at the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what The Book of Life was supposed to be. If you take the film only at its surface level, it’s about a bet between two underworld rulers on who a young girl will choose to fall in love with. Which is fine, but then the film shows it hand within a scene or two. The best moments of the film almost seem like deviations from the plot itself.
Tim: I did find it a little weird how ready the film was to throw Joaquin under the proverbial bus and turn him into the de facto antagonist for a decent part of the movie. The beginning of the movie tells us flat out that he and Manny are supposed to be best buds, but we never see them as anything but rivals.
Erik: I never really saw him as the antagonist – Xibalba and Chakal share that role. Actually, Joaquin’s character was something I appreciated about the film. He’s a romantic rival to Manny, yes but they’re not outright enemies. In fact when comes to the obligatory, girl marrying the wrong guy moment, you can tell Joaquin is uncomfortable with it, because by that point he realizes he’s already lost the competition. And in the end, when Manny’s back from the dead, he steps aside pretty gracefully.
James: True, but this is the conceit of the film, at least initially, and that the film gives Manny the advantage from the start takes away a lot of the drama. It almost feels like that plot thread was seen early on to too on-the-nose that the creatures of the underworld and Chakal became more central just to fill time to the eventual, predictable happily ever after.
Erik: I also didn’t mind that we pretty much knew from the start who Maria would end up with. To me, the movie wasn’t really about the outcome of a love triangle, it was more about the personal journey of Manny goes on, and to a lesser extent, Joaquin. It’s incredibly simplistic yes, but by then end both characters learn something.
Tim: I agree, but the point where Joaquin steps beyond being just another player is where the movie suggests that a marriage to Maria is the only thing that will keep him in town to defend them from bandits. The possibility that Joaquin would stay anyways because, after all, this is his hometown is never floated. So Erik, I think you’re right, the love triangle isn’t what the movie wants to be about, but I think the construction of the plot makes it functionally a bigger deal than it maybe ought to.
James: Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie overall was just how busy it was. The more I think about it, the “plot” doesn’t really seem to be of much concern overall. The film moves around so quickly from one visual gag to next, and from one subplot to another that it seems kind of difficult to track it from start to end. Which makes me really wonder what the film is really, truly aiming for.
Erik: It’s odd, the film does, without a doubt have more than a few problems, but I didn’t find it forgettable. I think the parts I liked are going to stick with me for a while. In the end, it was entertaining, and sometimes that’s all I really need from a film. Consider too, that it is a film made for children. Though it may not be one of those films that a bitter twentysomething-year-old film buff enjoys as much as the ten-year-old sitting next to him theaters does – not that I’m speaking from personal experience – I think it works completely a piece of children’s entertainment.
Tim: I will say this in defense of the movie for an audience of twentysomethings and up – for one of my close friends, this was his favorite animated feature of the year so far. He loved it. I’ve only talked to him a little as to why, but I think a lot of it had to do with both the artistic and the cultural uniqueness of the film’s presentation. I don’t personally go there with him, but it’s clear that the movie can still have resonance outside what is definitely its target demographic – kids.