Now whatâ€™s the best method to convey how much of a soulless, committee designed borefest The Book of Life was? Letâ€™s start off with how the movie starts. We open with a bunch of rascally kids in modern day being told the story of The Book of Life by a sassy tour guide. Right there. This was when my enthusiasm for this movie started to die. Thus the tour guide narrates/sickeningly exposits about the tale of three childhood friends, the kind hearted musician Manolo, the meatheaded and self absorbed Joaquin and the no-nonsense independent girl Maria as they become embroiled in a bet between two gods. The kind and benevolent god of the land of the remembered La Catrina, and the conniving lord of the land of the forgotten Xibala. They betÂ on whoÂ will win the love of Maria, Joaquin or Manolo. A time skip ensues with Manolo becoming a bullfighter/musician and Joaquin joining the army. Now as Maria returns to town after being sent away to learn how to read, do fencing, kung-fu and to certainly be able to build a rocketship out of toothpicks to make her more impressive, the boys start a battle of affection to win Mariaâ€™s heart.
Oh, was there something wrong with my summary of the lead-in premise? Oh right for those whoâ€™ve seen the well-done trailer for book of life you might remember the scene where Manolo is bitten by a snake and sent to the Land of the Remembered. Good for you. Now how long do you think it took this movie to get to the land of the remembered? Well I canâ€™t say specifics but Iâ€™ll tell you what it felt like, a freaking eternity. The Book of Lifeâ€™s critical failure as a story is that it will not stop explaining, thus making everything drag on and on. Explaining what the Book of Life is, explaining Jaoquinâ€™s barely there backstory, explaining the villains motivations, explaining day of the dead, Manoloâ€™s family history, the land of the remembered, explaining how Manolo feels guilty for not killing bulls, just explaining, explaining and more explaining.
I can easily understand why the writers, Jorge Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale, decided to go this route, writing a brand new fantasy story is a very tricky thing. All because of one fact, if your audience doesnâ€™t get what youâ€™re trying to say your story will fail. So, especially for childrenâ€™s fantasy movies, thereâ€™s an urge in screenwriters to explain their movie thoroughly from a modern perspective to get everybody on the same page and hopefully connect with their audience. But unfortunately it doesnâ€™t work like that 100% of the time. In most cases people and kids enjoy the mystery of figuring out the world on their own, not through blunt exposition but woven in context and dialogue that creates a rock solid subtext to the narrative.
But this time around they took the easy way out and modernize The Book of Life and the result is catastrophic to the story. Because so much of the movie is just explaining, not to mention because the editing is so lightning fast, we can barely spend 2 minutes to develop anything before boop other subplot/comic relief/modern slang comes rolling in. It creates an emotional disconnect from the story, characters and set pieces making everything a slog to sit through.
The worst examples of modernization can be boiled down to four main offenders. 1. The museum narrator is entirely unnecessary. If they cut those scenes out completely and we just opened on the three kids and the bet between Xibala and La Catrina the pacing would have improved dramatically and the movie would be better for it.
2. Ice Cube as the sage character the Candle Maker. I went to the theater with two of my friends and we all noticed that once Ice Cube’s character The Candlemaker made his grand debut on screen, popping and locking it and spouting some of the most blatant modernizations, that theater was dead quiet. The Candlemaker or more accurate Ice Cube wasnâ€™t playing a character at that point. He was just a catch phrase spewing, brothaâ€™ product. You know what Iâ€™m sick of? Wacky sage characters. Yeah they can be funny, but recently this trope is just used a crutch to try and make that charactersâ€™ exposition dump bearable to listen to. Why canâ€™t we just have a wise old character exposit? Like Nicodemus from Secret of NIMH or Yoda from Star Wars. A being of maturity to lead our main characters to make a their critical decisions in their stories. Well I guess it wouldnâ€™t be wackyÂ enough if we did things like that.
3. We have the same fake product feeling with our damsel Maria. While her boy toys, Manolo and Joaquin, were both completely generic and one note, Maria wasnâ€™t even that. Sheâ€™s the boring stereotypical anything girl. Do you need a girl character to show that girls can do anything men can do while also showing they can be simply be captured insultingly easy and pushed aside like a piece of meat? Then get an anything girl. They can do anything especially be overdone. Having a character be amazingly talent for their own benefit is one thing, but Mariaâ€™s talents are directly rooted to her trying to one-up guys, and while this could be great characterization what we get are just clunky jabs saying â€œSee! Girls can be just as great as guys.â€ The most idiotic of which is when she utters “IÂ learnt kung-fu.” Itâ€™s almost insulting to think girls are supposed to buy this fake commercial crap.
And finally offender #4, for a movie that obviously spent a LOT of moolah on its animation, I find it really funny how the majority of the songs are either crappy pop music or horrible covers. Iâ€™m sorry if I felt maybe some original songs with influences from the Mexican culture would help make this movie stand out. I guess Iâ€™m just not the type of guy who likes to listen too obviously crowbarred in songs from the Top 100 hits list. If there was an original song hiding amongst the covers I donâ€™t think even people who would like this movie would notice as they all sound the same.
Itâ€™s a shame that book of Life has all these problems because I do think it also has some interesting ideas and jawdropping visuals. The animation was done by Reel FX, you know the guys behind Free Birds, the time travelling Turkey movie with Owen Wilson, while there track record on choosing good movies could use some work the Book of Life is a true Mexican fiesta of visuals. Bright colors, detailed and inventive models and textures, the visuals are clearly the most gripping and innovative facet of this movie. And with our director being an EX-Character Designer we also have flash drawn segments in El Tigre style, which was very impressive, but the CGI in comparison makes it look like crap.
And to be 100% fair I didnâ€™t think every character was awful, I particularly liked La Catrina and Xibala, played respectively by Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman. They both bring a flare of passion and seriousness to their performances that creates an intriguing rivalry and romance between the two giving us some actually funny lines unlike Candle Cube. It really hurts saying this because I was looking forward to Book of Life and with Boxtrolls preceding it, it couldâ€™ve been a Halloween tag team for kids to remember. But itâ€™s just too artificial in emotion to make me feel anything but boredom towards it with only the animation, La Catrina and Xibala keeping me awake. If you still want to see it, see it as a lesson, a lesson for movies to improve and to see the beautiful work by Reel FX. Thatâ€™s the reason why itâ€™s doing well so far but personally I could never recommend this soulless movie to anyone.