THE BOOK OF LIFE
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Cast: The voices of Diego Luna, Zoë Saldana, Channing Tatum, Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman, Hector Elizondo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera
MPAA Rating: (for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 10/17/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 16, 2014
In a hidden space at the end of a long and dank hallway that can only be entered through a false wall adjacent to the museum's entrance, there is a secret exhibit about Mexican culture. Why is there the need for such secrecy? Well, the exhibit is the home of the mythical Book of Life, a leather-bound tome that contains every story of the history of the people of Mexico. Mainly, though, it's a way to instantly establish an aura of mystery surrounding something ordinary. It's effective, too, because The Book of Life is about the great mysteries of life and death. In between the toilet humor and the anachronistic pop songs and the fairly routine story of a love triangle set against a whole lot of external conflict, that is.
Here is a movie of impressive imagination and surprising sympathy that still winds up feeling like the product of less pure intentions. In its most important elements, the movie doesn't pander. It is a creative vision of mythical storytelling, imagining its players as wooden figurines controlled by the whims of gods whose intentions mere mortals are incapable of understanding and the drive of forces that humans have spent lifetimes attempting to comprehend. The screenplay by director Jorge R. Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale sees its characters as toys, but it has compassion for them, too.
There is really only one villain here (who's alluded to often but who doesn't show up until the movie's climax), but there are plenty of characters who, in a less kindhearted tale, could be villains or rogues or some other synonym for dastardly evil-doers. Instead, they all have their reasons for doing what they do.
Gutierrez and Langdale make sure we see what's behind the questionable actions of those characters. In other words, it's a nice movie that just happens to feature a misunderstood demon, a town facing complete annihilation, and a preoccupation with death that includes the apparent demise of one central character and the very real killing of another.
It's a children's story about the supernatural, though, so it should go without saying that the untimely expiration of a lead character's life is only temporary. What that development does is to allow the filmmakers to fully indulge in the movie's cultural concerns, providing us with a visually stunning centerpiece set in the Land of Remembrance—an afterlife where the souls of the dearly, still-remembered departed reside.
Before all of that, the story, which is bookended and occasionally commented upon by students on the field trip, is about three friends. Manolo (voice of Diego Luna) is a guitarist and singer with dreams of becoming a famous musician. His father Carlos (voice of Hector Elizondo) instead wants his son to become a famous bullfighter, following in the footsteps of his ancestors (most of whom, we learn when the movie venture to the afterlife, died in the ring). His best friend Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum) wants to become a famous warrior, living up to the legend of his father, who was killed protecting the town of San Angel from bandits.
They both love Maria (voice of Zoë Saldana), who, as a girl, left town for school at a convent and returned with proto-feminist notions of how she wants to live her life. Namely, she has no intention of having herself defined by any man, whether it be her father (voice of Carlos Alazraqui), the town's general, or either of the men who adore her.
La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman), who reigns over the Land of the Forgotten, make a bet. If Joaquin marries Maria, the two deities will switch places; if Manolo marries her, things will remain the same. To weigh the odds in his favor, Xibalba gives Joaquin a medal that imbues the wearer with great power and everlasting life.
Joaquin could easily be a bad guy here, but like his competitor for Maria's heart, he is simply a man trying to live in the large shadow of his father. Both men have good intentions (although it is amusing how Maria sees through their assumptions that they deserve her and fights back against their advances), and even Xibalba is presented as a tragic figure who is condemned to what seems to be the most depressing place in the universe.
The scenes in the realms of the dead—the colorful Land of the Remembered, where buildings move like parade floats, and the terrifying Land of the Forgotten, where souls simply dissolve into ashes as their memories fade—are the movie's most imaginative. It's also around this point in the story that cracks begin to show. The screenplay, which is already busy with musical numbers (One does not expect to hear a Radiohead song) and all kinds of plot mechanics involving the wooing of Maria and familial troubles, becomes even busier with a suddenly wider cast of characters and a generic villain to battle.
It's unfortunate, because The Book of Life seems to be fighting against the urge to resort to the commonplace. The movie eventually succumbs to it, but the movie is a clever, subversive trip until then.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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