Although advertisements for The Book of Life really didn’t kick in until a few months before its release, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the film for a bevy of reasons. It’s produced by Guillermo Del Toro (thus giving it a pedigree), it’s directed by Jorge Gutierrez (who once created one of my favorite Nickelodeon cartoons, El Tigre), and it’s one of the few mainstream accepted films celebrating Mexican culture. In fact, I’m having a hard time picturing a Latino animated film in recent years (The Road to El Dorado is the only one I can think of, really).
So with all of that on the line, how does The Book of Life handle the pressure? It’s got to deliver an entertaining children’s film, it’s got to educate folks on the Mesoamerican holiday Dia de Muertos, and it has to do all of this while making sure it has a competent story of its own. Thankfully, The Book of Life maintains some of its balance during this trapeze act of remarkable proportions.
The Book of Life is the story of three childhood friends in the small town of San Angel. Two of which, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), are in love with the third child, Maria (Zoe Saldana). Seeing the two boys compete for Maria’s love, two gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, place a bet on which of the two boys will end up marrying Maria in the end. After Maria is sent to live in a convent to become a proper Mexican woman (yes, really), the three grow up in far different fashions. Manolo is trained to become a bullfighter like the rest of his Sanchez relatives (but really wants to be a musician), and Joaquin becomes a decorated war hero thanks to help from Xibalba’s magic. All while the super bandit Chakal is threatening the town from a distance.
Book of Life’s story is incredibly simplistic. While this makes the film easy to digest, and also gives the film a nice fairy tale/fable vibe (and thus is more appealing to children), it means it has to cram quite a bit into a short amount of time. For example one of the film’s best locales, the Land of the Remembered, is filled with vibrant colors and the most fanciful visuals of the entire film, but it’s swept away through a brief two minute scene. I’m sure it’s a weird criticism to make, but I liked the look of Book of Life‘s environments so much, I wanted to spend more time in them. There just isn’t enough development in most areas. It’s like eating a sugar skull. Looks good, but entirely hollow when you bite into it. But even still, the film is just great to look at.
Book of Life is a gorgeous film. It’s got a distinct, eye catching character design that works wonders within the nature of its story (it’s framed as a tale told to children). Using both influences from both Dia de Muertos decorations (mostly the puppetry and wooden carvings) and Gutierrez’s own line of work, each character is built with a blocky, flat outline that blends well with the CG world. It’s like you’re seeing a puppeteer move the characters along (a quirky little touch gives most of the characters visible metal joints that hold their wooden parts together). Their toy like appearance also makes the fantastical nature of their world far more acceptable as the whole “story within a story” comes together. But unfortunately, this fantastical world also has some troubling real life implications.
While the film makes sure to highlight Mexican culture’s better attributes (family togetherness, bravery, music and such), it also critiques some of the darker aspects of the culture. Whether it’s a result of the self deprecating humor (the film makes sure to note that Mexico is “the center of the universe” and has plenty of jokes about mustaches) or a consequence of the story, it’s pretty nasty toward women. While La Muerte and Manolo’s mom have autonomy, Maria doesn’t. She’s the main woman in the story, yet her ending has to be wrapped around Manolo or Joaquin. Maria is developed as a strong woman who’s well versed in all sorts of things (as she openly says she doesn’t belong to anyone) yet is still enveloped in the ideals of the “perfect” Mexican woman: kind, listens to her father, and most importantly, virginal.
Despite the film fighting this, the three main characters are still wrapped in their parents’ wishes. It’s a tragic layer that emphasizes how much control parents have in Mexican families. Book of Life does try to point out that they’re finally breaking the cycle, but the ending of the film completely denies all movement forward. It’s an odd mash of tones that probably would’ve worked out well, but Book of Life never gives enough time to develop this idea or find a balance between a congratulatory pat on the back and a stern wag of the finger.
But what if you aren’t as engrossed with Mexican culture as I am? Book of Life is still a hearty experience. The cast is well placed (with Channing Tatum and Diego Luna anchoring with great performances), some of the jokes are far too on the nose but work well with kids, the soundtrack is lovely as it’s full of anachronistic song choices (American pop music infused with Spanish flair) that help widen its appeal, and is a feast for the eyes.
So, I’m conflicted. I do like The Book of Life quite a bit, but am troubled by what it implies as it never follows through with its criticisms. Like it’s whispering weird things in the corner but goes silent when confronted directly. Oh well, vive la vida.