Exquisitely gorgeous, full of heart and refreshingly free of pop-culture gags, The Book Of Life is only kept from excellency by rushing its finale.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I am not going to waste any time or beat around any bushes, so let’s get straight to the point: it’s good. It’s really good. I went into The Book Of Life with unreasonable expectations, as anyone who follows my Twitter will more than know, and yet this film managed to fulfil them near-totally for so much of its runtime. It is incredibly beautiful, in both the visual and metaphorical sense as the film’s sublimely wonderful visuals are complimented at every turn by strong characters in a story whose formulaic beats are spruced up and justified by said strong character work and that Mexican aesthetic influencing a lot of the film, not just visually.
I’ll get to my one issue in a short while. For now: our plot, related to us by a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) looking after detention kids, tells the tale of three childhood friends: heartfelt and peaceful wannabe singer Manolo (Diego Luna), swashbuckling Joaquín (Channing Tatum), and the girl they are both also openly in love with, María (Zoe Saldana). They end up becoming the participants in a bet made between the rulers of the festive and wonderful Land Of The Remembered, in La Muerte’s (Kate del Castillo) case, and the desolate and rotting Land Of The Forgotten, in her husband Xibalba’s (Ron Pearlman) case; a bet over which boy will end up marrying María and with control over each ruler’s respective lands and the ability to meddle in the affairs of humans on the line.
Said bet ends up lasting a good decade after María is forcibly sent off to a boarding school in Spain. During their time apart, Manolo is forced by his father to take up the family tradition and become a bullfighter, albeit one who morally objects to killing the bull. Joaquín, meanwhile, has become a well-renowned defender of the people throughout Mexico, thanks to a special medal that Xibalba gave him at the outset of the bet that makes the wearer invulnerable, in a desperate attempt to live up to his famous father. The return of María also heralds the return of Joaquín to their village and the re-igniting of the relatively friendly competition to win the hand of their childhood sweetheart, with the situation being complicated by María’s father attempting to forcefully arrange a marriage between his daughter and Joaquín, in an attempt to keep the latter around to defend the town from bandits, and the fact that Xibalba is a very poor sportsman.
Now, yes, this set-up does carry worrying overtones that we should be rooting for María to get with The Right Man, seeing as there are worrying stakes at hand if she picks wrong. Fortunately, although it doesn’t do so overtly, The Book Of Life cuts off any such unfortunate implications by making all involved participants well-drawn and consistent characters and keeping Xibalba as a trickster and overly competitive entity who has no actual malicious plans for The Land Of The Remembered. So whilst the central tenant of the film is in hoping that Manolo ends up with María, it comes from Manolo and María being right for one another, chemistry and all that.
That is not to say, however, that the film demonises Joaquín. There is a point where it seems like it will go that way, there’s a reunion dinner with María where Joaquín accidentally comes off as a sexist pig (don’t worry, the film is aware of this fact), but it keeps these moments in moderation. Joaquín is flawed, but not horrible. He’s a little ego-centric and macho, but he also has deep-seated insecurity issues and is still fundamentally a good person, still remaining friends with Manolo deep-down even when their battle for María’s affections overrides common sense, and really not buying into the whole arranged marriage deal. Again: flawed, not horrible.
The main trio are all extremely well-rounded and well-defined characters whose bond is believeable and whose personality traits are consistent and well-conveyed – a small early scene of them as kids trying to stylishly get to the bottom of some street steps has María slide down the railing, Joaquín jump from the top step to the bottom step in one fluid flip motion, and Manolo trips and falls flat on his face but doesn’t let his failed attempt at being cool get him down. And that’s what drive the story, the characters. Admittedly, María doesn’t get quite the level of development that Manolo and Joaquín do – most likely caused by the film’s big problem that we’ll get to in due course – whilst Xibalba and La Muerte’s marriage isn’t quite fleshed out enough for my liking, but these didn’t start becoming an issue for me until after the credits had rolled.
There’s real heart bleeding out of every facet of this film, which is what makes its more formulaic moments easier to accept and swallow. The standard plot beats are occasionally hit, with the frequency of said hitting going up as the film progresses, but the film is so sincere in its deployment of them – not once does it feel like they’re being hit because that’s how successful animated films are supposed to go – that they work. More than nearly any other animated film that I have seen this year, The Book Of Life feels like a labour of love. Practically everything in this film is done because its main creative force, first-time feature-film director Jorge R. Gutiérrez (best known as the co-creator of the short-lived and criminally underrated Nickelodeon cartoon El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera), wished it so. Or, at least, that’s the impression I got.
Especially from the jokes. Now, disregard what other critics have said, the film’s jokes are not heavily steeped in pop culture. When they say that, they are likely referring to the film’s soundtrack and one particular scene that takes its cues from said soundtrack. See, the film’s soundtrack primarily consists of Mexican-style covers of songs from non-Mexican countries and one scene involves Manolo’s friends trying to help him romantically serenade María, but the friends keep playing songs that are decidedly un-romantic, like Biz Markie. Now, admittedly, on one level, the joke is “we all know that Biz Markie song!” But the joke goes deeper than that, instead also working to show that Manolo’s friends (who disappear from the film shortly after this scene, endemic of a larger pacing problem I’ll get to soon) have no concept of romance and no real understanding of the songs they’re singing. It’s a pop culture joke rooted in character work.
It’s also practically the only time that pop culture gags invade the film, or at least to such a blatant degree. Most of the jokes are of the fast-paced physical humour variety, with plenty of sight gags, one-liners and facial reactions thrown in for good measure. The film’s best gags, though, compliment the mood without overpowering it. As an example, an otherwise sad scene caused by Manolo’s public refusal to kill a bull has a quick cut to the bull itself shaking its head disapprovingly at him before slinking off. Whilst the film’s most unquestionably heart-breaking scene gets two cuts back to the kids being told the story reacting with the exact kind of “This story is messed up, we’re kids!” reaction that I imagine a lot of younger audience members might be going through. Neither one ruins the intended mood, they instead enhance it, providing a counterbalance without coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting.
Going back to the soundtrack, there is a full-on score by Gustavo Santaolalla, but it’s relatively generic and fades into the background. The pop songs will be what sticks out, be they original (which are fine, but rather unmemorable), or covers. Both are highly influenced or re-worked to have a distinct Mexican flavour. For example, Mumford & Sons.’ plodding, coldly-calculated-for-radio-and-festival-playing “I Will Wait” is transformed into a cheery, bouncy number just bursting with knowingly cheesy energy, whilst “Creep” by Radiohead is played as straight as humanly possible with a near-total lack of awareness to the actual meaning of “Creep”’s lyrics that almost works. Also, a very minor remix of “The Ecstasy Of Gold” backs Manolo’s bullfight and that song can make pretty much anything amazing. I dug the soundtrack, even the out-of-place, but not-unwelcome, deployment of Le Tigre at the very beginning.
As for the animation… the only words that I feel get close to my thoughts on it can be arranged in an order that reads “best looking animated film all year”. It’s all down to the outstanding art direction and character designs. Almost every shot practically bursts with colour and little individual details that once again demonstrate the sheer amount of heart put into the film. It’s a distinct visual palette that genuinely looks like nothing else on the animated market right now and lets the film get away with the occasional cost-cutting measure, like making a foregrounded crowd that our heroes ride past at a very high speed a dark blob that resembles a foreground prop in a puppet show, because it absolutely fits the storybook aesthetic of the film.
Speaking of, the story that the kids are told is illustrated in their world with little wooden figurines, which is also how that part of the story is presented to us viewers, wooden figurines whose joints, boxy edges and paint lines are clearly visible – I may have even seen some scuff marks at points, too – and the effect is just delightful. It’s unique in the most wonderful way, a look that takes full advantage of the visual treats that animation can provide, and I haven’t even described how cold and desolate The Land Of The Forgotten is in comparison to the you-need-to-see-it-for-yourself Land Of The Remembered. This is one of the best looking animated films that I have ever seen, almost all thanks to outstanding visual design, and I wish I had a Blu-Ray of the film right now so’s I can appreciate its beauty in all of its majestic glory on my terms.
In fact, just feast your eyes upon the character design for La Muerte and the sheer detail that went into it. Yes, that is skin designed to resemble sugar, representing the candy skulls synonymous with the Day Of The Dead. Study it real hard. The whole film looks that outstanding.
So, it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, exquisitely and unfathomably gorgeous, and full of characters with depth and personality. Where’s the kicker? I’ve been building up through this review that The Book Of Life has one central overriding problem that keeps it from excellency and it’s about time to reveal it. See, by the time we get to The Land Of The Remembered, an aspect that a lot of the marketing has been based around (understandable, the place is stunningly beautiful), the film is about 50 minutes to an hour done. The film runs a strict 95 minutes, and that includes credits. I think you already know where I’m headed with this.
It’s not that those first 50 or so are too slow or anything – if anything, they are absolutely perfectly paced – it’s that the remaining 45 are way too fast. As soon as we enter The Land Of The Remembered, the film screams its way through plot point and character and beat after plot point and character and beat with pretty much no breathing room. You know those pauses in a well-paced film, where the action slows down and lets the viewer get their bearings on events and deepen characters before the next big segment happens? Those are present in the first 50 or so minutes, but they are pretty much gone in that last third.
Consequently, many scenes are robbed of much of the impact that they would have had – most jarring of which is a reunion that should have been emotionally devastating, but instead carries zero weight because the film screeches past any of that potential weight, as if it looked at the clock and realised how little time it has left. It’s the equivalent of taking a drive to the supermarket in your dependable low-cost Corsa only for it to, at the two-thirds mark, suddenly switch into a Lamborghini without warning and your steady peddle work now translates to 200MPH all the time.
It doesn’t feel like a creative decision, either; I got the impression that this part of the film was edited to hell and back, as if studio interference from upon high decreed that “animated films rarely last longer than 90 minutes, so we’re cutting your mics in 30, OK?” Maybe the budget ran out, maybe there are significant half-finished scenes on the cutting room floor waiting for a release on home media, maybe it really was a creative decision designed to get us just as confused and “taking it all in at once” as the character we’re following – I don’t know. What I do know is that the film needed to be longer. It needed those gaps, those pauses, and it could have gotten them if the film were longer, even if it were just by 5 or 10 minutes.
There’s also the relatively minor issue of Chakal, the film’s true Big Bad. Yes, there actually is one and the reason I forgot to mention this is because he feels nearly-completely ancillary to the film. Oh, sure, his reputation and presence in the world are necessary, but his actual appearance in the finale and the way the film deals with him, as well as the complete and total lack of any character other than his name, feels… pointless? It does give a very good pay off to everyone’s arcs and little plot teases set up at various points, but his actual turning up carries pretty much no weight. It could have just been a horde of his bandit minions and the effect would have been the same. Instead, he turns up presumably because these films need a Final Boss and, as mentioned, Xibalba isn’t truly evil, so he fits the bill. Again, his total lack of character is what hurts him; I remember exactly zero things about him as I type these words.
So it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it should, but otherwise The Book Of Life is a full-on triumph. Considering the fact that I had such unreasonable expectations for the thing prior to its release, the fact that I am 80% satisfied with it could probably and not unfairly be considered a goddamn miracle. But I am. I am very much satisfied and happy with The Book Of Life. If its last third weren’t so rushed, this would be the best animated film of the year. As it stands, though, “very funny, indescribably beautiful, and bursting with heart” is still an opinion-summing up to be very proud of. I hope Jorge R. Gutiérrez has many more animated features planned for further down the pipeline because his creative voice, as also proven by his co-creating work on El Tigre, is one that this medium needs to hear more of as soon as possible.
Callum Petch is a gasoline gut with a Vaseline mind. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!