‘The Book of Life’ Review: Recommended Reading
Considering how many animated movies are little more than thinly disguised advertisements for action figures, video games, NASCAR, Pizza Hut and the soul-crushing status quo, it’s refreshing to see a film like The Book of Life come along. Here at last is an animated film that’s only advertising one thing: the Pop radio station on Spotify. Still, that’s gotta be considered an improvement.
I kid, I kid, because The Book of Life is also an advertisement for death itself, painting the afterlife as a magic rainbow dance party where everyone looks cooler than they did in real life and goes on thrilling adventures. I don’t know about you and your kids, but after watching The Book of Life, I couldn’t WAIT to die. It certainly looks like a serious improvement on everything I’m doing right now. (What’s this? I have to pay my health insurance bill? Again? Now where’s that gas valve everyone keeps going on about…?)
And although that’s a snippy comment to make, and it sounds pretty darned morbid out of context, the heartwarming approach to mortality is one of the movie’s finest qualities. The Book of Life is a children’s film about death, true, but it makes death seem a lot less scary to little kids. There’s still a downside to dying – if no one remembers you, you’re basically trapped in limbo – but the film’s dedication to including deceased loved ones as members of the cast, still influencing the children they left behind, is an endearing concept. It’s certainly one from which kids, especially those to whom the death of family is both confusing and frightening, can take away something positive.
The Book of Life stars Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo as Xibalba and La Muerte, lords of the underworld who make a wager on the love lives of three children, Manolo, Joaquin and Maria. La Muerte bets that Maria (Zoe Saldana) will grow up to marry Manolo (Diego Luna), a mariachi born into a family of famous toreadors, and Xibalba bets she’ll grow up to marry Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the son of a great war hero. As these lively and likable characters compete, they battle the looming shadows of their ancestors, who seem to demand from the grave that they behave in a certain way, and honor family traditions that may or may not actually befit their personal qualities and beliefs.
Tired of watching the story play out on its own, and sensing defeat on the horizon, Xibalba takes matters into his own hands, bestowing Joaquin with paranormal powers and tricking Manolo into the afterlife, where his family helps him fight his way back into the land of the living to win back Maria’s hand and save their hometown from bandits, who threaten to kill everyone who ever knew they existed and, by extension, send them all to that forgotten limbo that I mentioned earlier.
The Book of Life is steeped in Mexican culture – Mexico is even declared the very literal center of the universe – and that’s just wonderful, isn’t it? It’s lovely to see a kids film embrace stories, mythologies, values and symbology besides the typical talking animal, European fairy tale schtick. The characters in The Book of Life are wooden toys, exaggerated and attractive to look at, and are voiced with amused sincerity by a game cast of voice actors, each of whom give their characters a distinctive flavor. And although the animation skews simplistic, the approach highlights the film’s more gorgeous moments in the underworld, which features imagery that’s bound to delight and intrigue younger audiences and older audiences whose hearts aren’t stuck entirely up an improper orifice.
But ironically for a film about Mexican history, almost all of the songs that drive the story are covers of mainstream pop tunes from the likes of Radiohead, One Republic and Us the Duo. The gag that these turn-of-the-century Mexican heroes are singing their hearts out to contemporary Billboard 100 songs gets a little old a little too quickly, and it’s not the only time The Book of Life reeks of trying too hard. By the time Maria – a fencing feminist with progressive ideas about romance and animal rights – reveals that she also knows kung fu, it becomes abundantly clear that her last name probably should have been changed to “Sue.”
But trying too hard to give kids a positive female role model is a problem more movies should emulate. And providing those same young audiences with new images, imaginative stories and socially positive messages is nothing to criticize. The Book of Life is a little naive at times, but only in service of warmth, entertainment and an absolutely charming sense of empathy.