On the Silver Screen – The Book of Life
The Book of Life is an animated film about Mexican folk beliefs, in this case the focus being the Day of the Dead (also known as Día de Muertos). This day is important in Mexican culture as it is when families and friends gather to remember and celebrate those who have died. This particular story follows Manolo (Diego Luna), a man conflicted between following the expectations his family has on him to be a bull fighter and following his own desires to be a musician. Before making this choice he is drawn into an adventure that spans three planes of existence and challenges him in unique ways.
It is refreshing to see another culture portrayed in an animated film in such a broad and unique way. This is largely down to director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro’s heritage informing their desire to have this film made. As such the film is made with complete sincerity and respect to these beliefs while also having a lot of fun with it.
Structurally it takes the form of a story being told to a group of inquisitive children and this conceit allows the story to be simplified down to the core elements but what surprised me was how complex everything remained. There is the standard setup of good vs evil but there’s a slight twist involved in that neither party is completely committed to their position. Much of the plot rests on a wager they place with each other which would make sense for the evil party but not so much for the good side. Relative narrative complexity does succeed in making this story a more layered one.
In terms of Manolo’s story it’s the fairly simple tale of him winning the heart of a woman, in this case the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). The obstacle comes in the form of Joaquin (Channing Tatum) who offers Maria and the town the protection that it may need. The story is well told for the most part and uses the idea that it is being imagined by children really nicely. There’s a nice sense of sincerity in how the story is told and lots of information is given about the customs
One thing that will remain memorable about this film is the distinctive visual style filled with vibrant colours and clever visuals. Each of the three worlds has a unique look and the characters are impressively designed. There’s a wooden aesthetic to Manolo’s story and while I’m not clear on the reasons why but it does set it apart from other animated films out there. The decision to use modern musical touches makes sense in universe if it’s being imagined by the children but it’ll probably make the film feel as dated in a few years as the Shrek films feel now.
The voice acting is really impressive as well. Diego Luna has a tenderness to his voice as Manolo while Zoe Saldana plays her role as the love interest Maria really well and delivers her lines convincingly. Ron Perlman’s Xibalba is appropriately mischievous without ever being menacing and Kate del Castillo’s La Muerte pulls off a good foil for him. Also Ice Cube does an impressive turn as the Candle Maker, sounding as jolly a God with a beard made of clouds probably could. Channing Tatum would be think weak link here with a fairly bland vocal performance among the rest of the talented cast.
Thematically there’s a lot going on here like the mainstays of family, friendship and of course love which are all covered pretty well, if being a little typical. Some more mature themes are dealt with like life and death, the inevitability of losing loved ones, remembering the dead, looking to the future and the importance and practicalities of pursuing your dreams. In some cases it’s a little heavy handed for a kids film and at times many of the important aspects of these are glossed over making it almost pointless to have included them at all. The attempt is appreciated though and there is a really effective scene that implies the death of a character without showing it happen.
A relatively engaging animated film that touches on some fairly mature themes. The story is well told with a talented voice cast and a unique visual style that helps set it apart from the other animated films out there. At times the darker themes are glossed over so that the point is more or less missed and the modern music soundtrack will only help to make the film feel dated in next to no time.