In 1993, then King of Macabre, Tim Burton, produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, a dark, yet comical, look at the other side of life and the “expired” characters that lurk about Halloweentown. Its success proved that a darker tone when it comes to animated films would not only be appealing to younger audiences, but that the older generation could appreciate the morbidity just as much as their kids. Thus began a new wave of animated flicks. Coraline, ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, and The Corpse Bride all followed in The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ example, and all proved to be successful in their own unique little ways. However, as appealing as these films may be, they all only tapped into a darker bleak view of The Underworld. The Book of Life has sought to change that.
Written and directed by Jorge R. Guiterrez, The Book of Life follows a love triangle and the conflicts that arise when one man tries to outdo the other. Manolo (Diego Luna) is a bullfighter with passion for music and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is a solider with an ego. After their love, Maria (Zoe Saldana), is bitten by a snake, the two must figure out a way to save her. Manolo follows Maria to the underworld and clashes with Xibalba (Ron Perlman) the new evil ruler of The Underworld. Manolo gains the help of his dead ancestors and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), another ruler over the dead.
The Book of Life has a very unique visual style. As the heart of it all is actually a story within a story. Manolo and Joaquin’s story unfolds as a museum tour guide tells the story to children using wood figures. Thus, the entire appearance of these characters is that of wood- almost marionette-like without the strings. It is a small effect that ripples throughout the film and adds a wonderful level of originality to a story that cannot quite get their on its own. These unique attributes for our characters paired with an absolutely brilliant and colorful version of The Underworld in full celebration during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The film celebrates one of Mexico’s biggest holidays, infusing the culture and history into the story.
The voicework is terrific, with Diego Luna and Channing Tatum leading the cast. Luna is a genuine romantic who any audience member can get behind, and his seemingly noble quest for love is something you can see Luna doing in his every day life (he’s a handsome fella). Tatum is comical as the cocky military man and his mustachioed appearance and manly manners are exactly what you’d expect to come from Magic Mike himself. Filling out the rest of the cast is nearly every Mexican actor working today (go figure), including the likes of Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, and Hector Elizondo. While these men are terrific additions, they make the rest of the secondary cast feel completely out of place, especially Ice Cube, who voices The Candlemaker, a middle man in the Underworld. He exists purely as an urban caricature and his work is abysmal when compared to the rest.
As for the film’s setting, we do not even get to visit the wonderful Underworld until nearly an hour into the film. Once we arrive, it’s more of a pit stop than a vacation. It’s quite a shame, as the color and excitement are easily the best aspects of The Book of Life. The movie also suffers from the fact that at the end of the day, it’s still a kids’ movie. The quickly moving, undeveloped story is tailored to the short attention span of children, and its constant jumping around and unnecessary musical numbers act like mini bursts of energy in every different direction. What makes matters worse is the fact that nearly every song in the film is just a cheapened Mexican cover of popular songs, including ones by Mumford & Sons, Biz Markie, and even Rod Stewart. Normally covers like these are fascinating, but when they fill the bulk of the film and make you wonder how come the budget was not spent elsewhere, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth.
If anything, the use of these covers is an obvious sign that The Book of Life is just not as original of a film as it could have been. With a wonderful back-story, and a setting in a colorful and vibrant world, the story could have been so much more. Guillermo del Toro was a producer for the film, and knowing the man’s filmography and absolute obsession with originality, you would think his hands would have been all over this production. Unfortunately, it plays out more like a watered down PSA for a Mexican holiday, skipping through a story that easily could have been spectacular. Instead, it relies on stupid humor, an infatuation with only familiar tunes, and the attention span of a four year old. And while I can completely understand that the film was made for kids, others like The Nightmare Before Christmas were able to toe that line between audiences ever so gracefully in the past.
In the end, The Book of Life is more of a tease of something wonderful than a strong stand alone product. Although it is easy to enjoy the exceptional parts of the film, the severe lack of wanting to be something original completely ruins it. Shame on you del Toro. Shame.
The Good: An ingenious visual style with a mostly solid voice cast
The Bad: Never letting its strongest aspects stay on the screen long enough for us to enjoy
The Ugly: Wondering what could have been if the film just tried a LITTLE harder