Synopsis: The Book of Life, a vibrant fantasy-adventure, tells the legend of Manolo, a conflicted hero and dreamer who sets of on an epic quest through magical, mythical and wondrous worlds in order to rescue his one true love and defend his village.
Release Date: October 17, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Animation, Children and Family
The Book of Life is not your average animated film as it features very few of the traditional tropes. It’s style is all its own; and it doesn’t rely on kitschy concepts as much as animated features like Madagascar or Cars. Unfortunately, that means it likely won’t make much money at the box office, and may not even find much of an audience, but it absolutely deserves to be seen. The Book of Life is an animated film so vibrant it’s arresting, and it tells a story that is bursting with creativity.
Set on the Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos), The Book of Life takes viewers to a small town in Mexico and introduces them to three friends: Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). Since a very young age the three have been inseparable, with both boys harboring crushes for their female companion. However, it’s only when the three grow up that Joaquin and Manolo start to act on those feelings, and try to win Maria’s heart in their own way.
For Manolo that means using his skills with the guitar and his way with words. While for Joaquin that means using his bravery. Maria clearly favors Manolo, but a marriage to Joaquin would help keep the town protected, thereby complicating her choice. Behind all this, though, are Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo), the physical representations of good and evil. The two place bets on which boy will win, but Xibalba chooses not to leave it up to chance. He interferes in the competition and ends up killing Manolo in the process. But, Manolo doesn’t exactly die. Instead, he tries to make his way through the underworld in the hopes of returning to Maria.
As a simple folk tale, The Book of Life works. It doesn’t play down to its audience, but uses universal themes and ideas to communicate a story that feels of a very specific culture. Director Jorge Gutierrez has a very clear vision, and he executes on it perfectly. He hasn’t made an American film with splashes of Latin flair, but an innately Latin movie. It’s refreshing to see a director’s vision brought to life with so few studio interferences, even if it might hurt the film’s mass appeal.
Make no mistake, though, The Book of Life is a very entertaining film. It has plenty of humor, great characters, and a solid narrative foundation. Some of the bigger concepts might fly over kids’ heads, but families should find plenty to enjoy regardless. In fact, this is one of those rare cases where the adults might actual take more away from the film than the kids. That’s because each element in the film, from the design of the fictionalized Mexican town to the interpretations of the underworld, is carefully considered and expertly crafted. One pass at The Book of Life is not enough to pick up every detail, but even so the film greatly impresses on a technical level.
The Book of Life‘s one genuine weakness is its storytelling, which struggles to keep up a consistent pace. The film starts off strong enough and ends on a high, albeit predictable, note, but it starts to lose momentum in the second act. Watching Manolo travel through the underworld is a visual treat, but the story doesn’t support the setting with a worthwhile adventure. Instead, it’s a generic journey that, while filled with clever visual touches, doesn’t hold up to the rest of the film’s creativity.
Ultimately, The Book of Life is so charming and imaginative that its few faults barely hold it back. It is a cinematic experience on so many levels, and it’s a testament to Fox for supporting Gutierrez in his vision. Films like these need more support because without them the genre would be lousy, filled with talking animal adventures. There is not one piece of The Book of Life that feels cut from another movie, and that in itself is the film’s biggest accomplishment. It establishes its own personality and doesn’t compromise.
While most animated films’ soundtracks typically take advantage of original songs, The Book of Life cleverly uses modern tracks to bolster its story. Even more than that, though, the film gives each song a Latin twist, so as to better fit the style of the story. That means a song like Radiohead’s “Freak” sounds more like a Latin ballad than a piece of alt-rock angst. It’s such a smart choice, and one that the film actually doesn’t take advantage of enough. But when the songs do kick in, they soar. Another excellent directorial choice by Gutierrez that proves just how much he loves this story.
Visually, The Book of Life is second to none, using the Dia de Los Muertos foil so perfectly and in so many creative ways it’s hard to keep track. Every frame of the film is packed with a ton of detail, from the design of the characters, which are meant to look like wooden dolls brought to life, to the various underworlds through which Manolo travels. More importantly, The Book of Life plays with the color palette in ways that few animated films do, using the whole spectrum to inspire emotion. If you’re a fan of animated films that aren’t of the generic cookie cutter CG variety, then The Book of Life will not disappoint.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Jorge R. Gutierrez
- Screenwriter(s): Jorge R. GutierrezDouglas Langdale
- Cast: Diego Luna (voice of Manolo)Zoe Saldana (voice of Maria)Channing Tatum (voice of Joaquin) Ron Perlman (voice of Xibalba)Christina Applegate (voice of Mary Beth)Ice Cube (voice of Candle Maker)Hector Elizondo (voice of Carlos Sanchez)Danny Trejo (voice of Skeleton Luis)
- Production Designer(s): Simon Valdimir Varela
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Gustavo Santaolalla
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA