Film Review: The Book Of Life (PG) (USA, 2015)


‘Dia de Muertos’ aka Day of the Dead has always been a great theme for films to work with, particularly animated ones. Director Jorge Gutierrez has taken the opportunity to inject the Mexican tradition’s vibrancy into The Book of Life, generating a sense of wonderment through stunning visuals and lively characters.

The film’s plot revolves around a love triangle between three childhood friends, Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna), Maria Posada (Zoe Saldana) and Joaquin Mondragon (Channing Tatum). The boys competing affections for Maria catch the eye of two rulers of the spiritual world La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) Queen of ‘The Land of the Remembered’ and her husband Xibalba ruler of ‘The Land of the Forgotten’. The couple make a wager based on which of the boys would grow up to win Maria’s heart. If Joaquin is successful Xibalba can swap his rule with La Muerte, if Manolo gets the girl Xibalba is no longer allowed to interfere with the destiny of mankind. The tale’s format switches between third person narrative courtesy of the lovely Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) a museum tour guide who uses the book to enthral a bunch of young misfits from a local high school, and the execution of the story itself.

This film’s artistic flair is its biggest draw card; backdrops play on bright colours and beautifully rendered 3D graphics. In particular the depiction of ‘The Land of the Remembered’ is gorgeous and a bit reminiscent of game Little Big Planet with its floating painted balloons, parade floats and shifting bridges at different levels within the realm. The characters are derived from wooden doll representations of themselves and are Tim Burton-esque in style but with a chunkier, bouncier appeal to them. Mexican and Latin mythology is used to create enchanting expansive scenery, with attention paid to the cultural aspects of the rite of passage for forgotten souls and remembrance celebrations of those who’ve past by visiting their graves with their favourite foods and memorabilia.

Maria is portrayed as a headstrong little girl who grows into a talented capable woman practiced in the arts of Kung Fu and Fencing. Considering how fiercely independent she is, it’s odd that she succumbs to marriage so easily, especially since her motivations aren’t convincing. Nonetheless Zoe Saldana does a great job voice acting the role; turns out she has a beautiful singing voice a la Maria and Manolo’s harmonised wedding ballad. Diego Luna makes for a very romantic and musically inclined Manolo who’s stance on bullfighting contradicts his talents as a Matador (Torero) whilst Ron Perlman of Sons of Anarchy and Hellboy fame, pulls off the right level of deviousness and cold heartedness to be Xibalba. There are some surprising cameos, Ice Cube plays the jovial larger than life Candle Maker comfortably, Danny Trejo steps in as Manolo’s feisty grandfather Luis ‘El super Macho’ Sanchez and Placido Domingo let’s his almighty vocal chords loose in his role as Manolo’s great grandfather Jorge Sanchez.

The second greatest element to this film is the music, with song choices steering the more comedic moments. A mixture of original and what could be dubbed as ‘mexicanified’ versions of well-chosen pop songs, add to the frivolity and no doubt enjoyment of the film. Highlights to the playlist include a melodramatic, stripped back version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, a joyously festive cover of Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait”, a very sweet and heartfelt take on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros “Home” and a utterly out of the blue and hilarious (for those familiar with it) reference to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” which the man himself contributed his vocals to.

Considering The Book of Life has a lot to offer both visually and musically, the charm of elements which should make the movie a great experience begin to wear off at the halfway point. A lot of potential’s been missed in the storytelling, leaving behind a plot which is kind of disappointing and flat. What is essentially quite a simply told tale turns out badly paced and lacking in engrossing factors that keep an audience engaged. Most of the funnier moments only pull out a couple of chuckles and it feels like parents may draw the short straw on this one, as there aren’t a lot of the usual hidden ‘adult’ gems of humour. In saying that The Book of Life does have a cheerful, fun vibe to it that will certainly capture the imaginations of its younger audience.



Running Time: 95 minutes

The Book of Life will premiere in cinemas nationwide on 2nd April 2015 through Twentieth Century Fox Films


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