The Book of Life (2014) – Perfect for kids but even better for adults

It’s October and it is usually the time for Halloween themed movies. Unfortunately for us, Halloween has been reduced to cheap horrors, or repetitive thrillers that are a bit of a bore. This year has been slightly different, but this reviewer would like the studios to go back in the past and pull some more seasonal themes to entertain us. Well, someone got my vibe, because my last review is on a film that captures the festive fun that Halloween is for the young and young at heart. So sit back my friends and catch my latest review on the animated feature The Book of Life.

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I’ll start this review with talking about the story. The Book of Life has a fantastic tale that centers on the typical complication of a love triangle between characters Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). Now we know the typical elements involved in this type of plot, but this film deviates from the typical and gives a little more pep around the story. From the start you get the backstory on each character, and the individual struggles they each face. Then they take these qualities and exploit them by bringing in the two masters of the underworld, who make a wager as to who will win the girl. The result of this wager, makes for an interesting romantic tale that is fun, emotional, and more realistic than half the dramas we get these days. However, the movie does not stop there, instead it ties in an adventure and blends it into all the aspects, making for a fun film. Once more, the whole tale revolves around the Mexican celebration of the day of the dead, bringing a unique take on the classic Halloween tale and providing a little education as well.

The story isn’t the only thing influenced by the Mexican culture though, the artistic style of the movie is also heavily influenced. The Book of Life is sort of a modern day Nightmare Before Christmas where CGI takes the place of stop motion animation. Many of the elements are similar, with the skeletons and landscapes sharp and angular to mirror the darkness of the afterlife. However, unlike Tim Burton, this director chose to liven things up a little by veering from the dark colors and adding wide splashes of colorful. This is not only to catch your eyes, but also to mirror the celebration that Day of the Dead is about and that life doesn’t end as long as you are remembered. In the Underworld especially the color comes out, and the festivities are brought to full fold in the magical realm of the dead. Deep in the land of the Forgotten, the oblivion of elimination is presented by a frozen cavern where hope is nonexistent. Regardless, the worlds are diverse and fun, filled with ancient Central American influences that were a welcomed change. Even the characters have pizazz to them, each main character standing out in their own unique way. I in particular liked the Queen of the underworld, impressed with the blend of partying, happy, and death all wrapped into one package. The ruler of the Forgotten Land, was also of unique design, sharp, dark edges in shades of purple, neon green, and crimson to portray the darkness of his soul.

What else makes this movie fun? The next aspect is the comedy, which for the most part is well timed and well delivered. There isn’t much unique writing or witty humor in this movie, but more in how it is delivered. Countless puns are shouted in ridiculous voices, often followed by a character face planting into an object. What’s even better is that the comedy is also diverse and spread out instead of following the typical style of beating a joke to death, the exception being Joaquin’s obsession with mustaches. In addition to the comedy, the music also brings some thing to the film. Most of the numbers are covers of famous songs, some done horribly to be funny and others that are very relevant to the plot. A couple of the original numbers made my emotions go on a ride, as happiness, sadness, and even love all came together in the instruments and voice. Now most won’t find it as powerful as Frozen, but for this reviewer it was nice having the music around the movie, not the opposite way around. Aside from the singing, the voice acting is incredible, each of the cast capturing the essence of the stereotypical Mexican character. Now there are too many to write about so let me pick my three favorites. First is Christina Applegate, the girl has got sass, spunk, and compassion all at work in her tour guide character. The girls sells the story as she uses the wooden puppets, which are represented in the character design, to craft the tale, keeping the kids in line, and yet showing empathy. Then there was Zoe Saldana who has the feisty Mexican girl zest that shows everyone girls don’t need men to save them. Her voice is suave and full of passion, and exactly the buffer needed amidst the rowdy, rough voices of the cast. Finally the Queen of the Dead was my favorite character, and Kate del Castillo does a nice job bringing the character to life with flare, kindness, and the ability to hold her own.

What can you take away from my sporadic rambling? The Book of Life is one of the better animated films I’ve seen in a while. It’s Halloween fun, with colorful worlds and characters that balance out the predictable and limited tale. I strongly recommend seeing this movie in theaters, possibly in 3-D. I haven’t had this much fun at the movies in quite some time, and I believe most will enjoy the adventure at hand.

Proud Showcase of Mexican Culture

Musical Manolo, scrappy Joaquin and smart Maria are three close childhood pals. Maria gets sent to Europe to study. Joaquin gets seriously into training as a military officer. Manolo is discouraged by his father from his musical aspirations, forcing him instead to take up bullfighting, which is the traditional Sanchez family occupation. When Maria returns to town after several years, Joaquin and Manolo vie for her heart.

Meanwhile, the two lords of the underworld, La Muerta (mistress of the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (master of the Land of the Forgotten) take a bet as to who Maria will end up with. On the Day of the Dead, the deities interfere with the outcome, leading to an adventure which will bring the characters from the land of the living to the land of the dead and back.

The most striking feature of this film is the animation style. The human characters are made to look like wooden puppets. This artworks were so ingeniously crafted such that each character is distinct from each other. The three main human characters all look very good and noble. The supporting characters are rather on the ugly, distorted side in their rendition, and these may need getting used to.

The background artwork is no less spectacular. The highlight of the whole film are those scenes in the Land of the Remembered, showing it as a happy bustling and festive place. The colors were so vibrant and rich. The multi-layered designs were so intricate and meticulous in their endemically Mexican-inspired details.

Another wonderful feature of this film is the musical score, written by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. This musician has been awarded the Oscar two times before for films “Babel” and “Brokeback Mountain.” The soundtrack also employs the most unexpected pop songs, sung Mexican style of course. Hearing a familiar song being sung makes me smile and even sing along. The sensitive singing voice of Diego Luna (as Manolo) makes songs as diverse as Radiohead’s “Creep” to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sound so good.

I believe this film had a lot of educational value in it for the young audience it targets. There are a lot of Latino values being tackled here about friendship and family, the status of women, the respect for the dead, etc., which are likewise universal as well, more often than not. It also introduces us, both kids and adults alike, to the vibrant Mexican culture, especially about their Day of the Dead.

The pace of the film was slow at first, but once you get into its groove, you will surely enjoy the eventful ride. My two sons with me, as well as the much younger kids in the theater with us, all seemed to enjoy the film very much as you hear a lot of gleeful laughter at the some of the shallower jokes. This was despite the rather macabre subject matter and several grotesque-looking (albeit in a comical way) characters. It also had humorous moments that only adults would chuckle at.

Aside from Diego Luna, the line-up of voice actors surprisingly included Zoe Saldana as Maria and Channing Tatum as Joaquin. I would not have guessed. Other familiar names such as Ron Perlman and Christina Applegate are also on board. The most unexpected name I saw on the list though was that of Ice Cube as the sunshiny fluffy underworld character named Candlemaker. Some well-known Latino actors like Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo and Placido Domingo voice the more mature characters, like Manolo’s dad and ancestors.

Overall, “The Book of Life” is a very unique animated feature film. The basic story is based on Mexican folklore and traditions, so the animation style had the colors, designs and style of Mexico. The different look and unfamiliar references may turn off some less adventurous viewers, but really it should not. This is one very educational and very entertaining film for all ages. Writer and Director Jorge R. Gutierrez was able to successfully expand on his experience on Nickelodeon’s frenetic award-winning animated series “El Tigre:The Adventures of Manny Rivera” (which he also created) and here proudly showcased his beloved Mexican roots on a much bigger platform.

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