The Book of Life movie review: Celebrating death without the gloom

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To assist me with the various details, backstory, and commentary, our very own Genevieve LeBlanc contributed much to this review.

Some of the basic requirements in storytelling is being able to have your material connect with the audience. A handful of young children are taken by their guide to a secret exhibit within a cultural museum, here they are introduced to a large book which tells the story of “The Day of the Dead,” the holiday after Halloween which is celebrated in Mexico to commemorate those who have passed on.

You are brought to the attention of two powerful characters of ornate design, the graceful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), and the mischievous Xibalba (Ron Perlman). La Muerte (made of sugar) rules the first level of the underworld (I forget the name) which is essentially Heaven. Souls go there and stay there as long as they are remembered by someone who is still living, and it’s party time all the time there. Xibalba (made of tar) rules the Land of the Forgotten, where souls who are no longer remembered are condemned. In between the two of them is the Candle Maker (made of wax with a beard of clouds), who watches over souls in the human world. Everyone’s story is written in the Book of Life (which the tour guide is reading from).

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La Muerte and Xibalba make a deal, each one choosing a young boy in a town whom they consider their own. For La Muerte, she chose the music-loving Manolo (Diego Luna), to Xibalba, the heroic Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and whomever won the heart of their friend, Maria (Zoe Saldana), would win the bet. If Xibalba wins, he and La Muerte trade realms. If La Muerte wins, Xibalba has to stop meddling in the affairs of humans.

The visuals all around were amazing. The intensity of the color and the intricacies of the character designs are worthy our love and praise! The puppet-like qualities of the characters kept the animation out of the uncanny valley and allowed for more style. This also is a great time to mention that these puppet designs also retained the wood texturing to emphasize the vision they were trying to achieve, which is an interesting contrast to the underworld where the designs are reminiscent of smooth stone and sugarskulls that are eaten on the Day of the Dead.

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While some movies can mix contemporary soundtracks into dated settings, the approach given in this movie was a bit strange. Gen started laughing out loud when Manolo started playing a ballad of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Half of the soundtrack had original songs, while the other half felt like it came out of a jukebox. It would have been nice if they produced more original songs, except for the scene with the mariachi brothers at Maria’s window. Well-known songs work best for that kind of humor.

Speaking of humor, one of the most endearing characters in the animated movie is Maria’s pet pig. Also, Channing Tatum gave a better performance that was expected, with his crying out “Joaquin” like a Pokemon got funnier with time. Another interesting quirk that I found out was that Jorge R. Gutierrez, who directed and wrote the screenplay, is an avid gamer. It confirmed my suspicions about one particular scene where Manolo is lifted up the side of a tower with the sequential help of his family, reminiscent of Cloud (in Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children) as he confronted Bahamut Zero.

BoL3Something Gen noted and I agreed with is the use of the tour guide and the children. They wanted to introduce the narrator and use these kids as a framing device, but it still felt clumsy. It felt like the framing device got better when they just showed the kids reacting to things, but it either felt too distracting or forced at times.

The mythology in The Book of Life is very different from what its sourced from. Being ignorant of Mexican and Central/South American mythology, I sometimes felt these elements in The Book of Life were the true representation of the myth. But in truth, Santa Muerte is a real Mexican folk figure and clearly who La Muerte is based on, but they took quite a few liberties from what we know about her. She’s strongly associated with being a patron saint in the LGBTAQ community with no real ties to The Day of the Dead. And Xibalba is the name of the underworld in Maya tradition, rather than an actual figure. There were several death gods that ruled Xibalba.

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In reflection, I felt that The Book of Life did well to carry a simple tale. There was no one with a deep backstory, each character represented a kind of archetype and the culture surrounding the Day of the Dead was well represented. Like the odd music choices, the Candle Maker felt like an archetypal manifestation personality-wise of how peculiar this mix of elements were. Beyond that, the design and animation were great! When I came out of that theater, I enjoyed the time I spent watching and laughing to this fun story. If you’re looking for something that hints towards the territory of Tim Burton’s macabre tales without the dark and dreary tones attributed to his style, this is an impressive artistic vision to feast your eyes on!

Rating: 4/5 Atoms

NR 4 Atoms - B

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Jaynesis Ong
Jaynesis Ong 162 posts

He is currently a graphics designer by trade, illustrator for indie games, fashionisto, film production assistant, socialite, sampler of fine music, and taster of various new MMO games. JB likes destructive walks on the beach, visceral plot points, maniacal villains, and collapsing galactic empires.