Director: Jorge R. Gutiérrez
Writers: Jorge R. Gutiérrez & Doug Langdale
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Channing Tatum
In 2014, The Book of Life, a film unique among Western media for both its art style and its Mexican roots, entered the canon of big-screen animation. While many critics praised the quality of its visuals, the film also proved somewhat controversial: some viewers were put off by the unconventional character models, while others believed the film presented too-cliched a version of Mexican culture. The movie was also something of a dark horse, being produced by a studio other than animation giants DreamWorks and Pixar. Despite these factors, The Book of Life has steadily gained a devoted fanbase in the years since its release.
Violence/Scary Images: There are several fight scenes, though they tend to be fairly cartoonish. Swords are featured but seldom used. A giant bull skeleton appears toward the end of the film.
Language/Crude Humor: The closest anyone gets to swearing is a particularly eccentric character exclaiming “Man, that is a whole lot of bull” as a pun.
Alcohol/Drug Use: None.
Spiritual Content: The movie creates its own system of gods and the afterlife, with La Muerte as the god of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba as the god of the Land of the Forgotten. There’s also the Candlemaker and the actual Book of Life, who are said to be in charge of creating and governing life, though the details of their role in the movie’s spiritual system are left ambiguous.
Sexual Content: There’s some kissing, most of which is blocked from view. The main plot is heavily romantic but is never explicitly sexual in any way.
Other Negative Content: The movie’s two gods greatly enjoy gambling, and most of the movie hinges on a bet that they make. Most of the town support and encourage slaughtering animals for the sake of entertainment.
Positive Content: The movie’s central theme is about standing for what you know to be right even when the rest of the world tries to bend you. There’s also some social commentary that speaks out against objectifying people, particularly women.
The most compelling–and refreshing–aspect of this film is how it treats its main characters of Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. The movie’s first act sees them separated for years as they grow from children into young adults. Rather than having the three friends grow apart and become entirely unrecognizable from their former selves, as seems to be the common trope, The Book of Life shows them retaining both their core convictions and the influence that they had on one another as kids. This makes them better not only as characters but as heroes since every one of their actions and decisions is rooted in what they believe is best rather than the result of them being bent by the will of the world around them.
Unfortunately, this well-crafted heroism is put to poor use, as the stakes in the film tend to be either ill-defined or uninteresting. The storyline concerns a contest between Manolo and Joaquin to see who will marry Maria, a contest which is set in place by a petty bet between gods whose primary motivation is that they like betting on things. Aside from reducing the film’s strongest character to a divine trophy, this plotline fails by not giving viewers any real reason to care who wins the girl or the bet. There are some strong internal struggles in the various character arcs, but they’re criminally underplayed in the narrative to the point of being irrelevant for most of the film.
While the characters do stick to their convictions, they never really face any tangible consequences for doing so other than mild verbal disapproval, which makes their decisions far less powerful. For such well-developed, independent characters, I wanted to see them take on challenges that were worthy of their stature; while they do end up facing a few, these trials are either minor or quickly resolved. We don’t really get to see our heroes deal with any actual failure, which makes it difficult to stay invested in the story.
With so little tension in its central conflicts, much of the film’s entertainment value lies in its humor–which is, for the most part, excellently done. While there are a few bits that rely on side characters who are so stupid that I found these moments more jarring than funny, most of the movie’s jokes are timed and delivered flawlessly. Among the best of these is a brilliant scene that shows Manolo reuniting with his brash and cocky ancestors in the Land of the Remembered (wherein we learn that “arms and legs,” among other things, “are for cowards”). The crown jewel, though, is Manolo’s grandmother, whose dry, uncaring witticisms repeatedly made me laugh hard enough that I had to pause the movie.
If there’s one thing that this film is remembered for though, it would be its aesthetic. The animation and visuals range from beautiful to bizarre, with the gorgeous Mexican motif and breathtaking flow of the action sequences contrasted by the Picasso-inspired arrangement of certain townspeople’s faces. It’s initially difficult to digest some of the odder character designs, but these quickly become less prevalent, allowing viewers to simply enjoy the warm, calming, or chilling ambiances of the various environments the film leads them through.
On a personal note, my main disappointment was not getting to see more of the Land of the Forgotten or its inhabitants. I’ve said before that concept is one of the things that intrigues me most in any form of fiction, and having the characters journey a little more through this realm would have been a great chance for the movie to fully flesh out the world it builds.
The Book of Life is not a nail-biter, but it’s funny and imaginative and will stay with you after it’s over. I suppose that’s not the most graceful way to end a review, but hey–proper conclusions are for cowards.
+Strong characters +Humor is well done +Great animation and visuals
-Weak plot with few real stakes -Some odd casting choices for voice actors -World feels like it needs to be more fleshed out
The Bottom Line
While the story itself lacks tension, The Book of Life is witty and intelligent enough to both entertain and challenge viewers.