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Life is full of love and song
For those with both within their hearts;
But why must death and sleep be different
From their former counterparts?

Grief will mark a soul’s departure
Here on earth where all lives cease;
But from grief comes celebration
In another life of peace.
__________________
 

MPAA rating: PG

 

While Pixar has been rumored to be working on a project called Coco about the Mexican Day of the Dead (supposedly for a 2017 release), Reel FX and 20th Century Fox Animation beat them to the punch with 2014’s The Book of Life. This inventively animated romance starts out with a frame story reminiscent of The Princess Bride, with a confident museum guide recounting a story to a collection of rowdy schoolkids, who interject their occasional thoughts and worries as the tale progresses.

While these kids have a more typical cartoon human appearance, the characters in the tale being told are intentionally modeled as wooden puppets, with visible joints but no strings. This aesthetic combines with the off-kilter animation to give the CGI film a stop-motion aspect, not unlike The Lego Movie. The story itself follows three childhood friends, Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who are destined to grow up into a love triangle. Just as viewers often debate who will get the girl in any number of series, the trio attract the attention of the two rulers of the afterlife, the lovely La Muerte of the Land of the Remembered and the bitter Xibalba of the Land of the Forgotten. Ron Perlman as Xibalba seems knowingly reminiscent of Hades in Hercules as he makes a game-changing bet with his counterpart as to which boy will marry Maria.

The Book of Life has a lot of positives. The animation is frequently enchanting and the characters surprisingly personable. While the characterization sometimes falters, I liked how one suitor was clearly meant as Maria’s soul mate, but the other was still given a chance to be heroic rather than being turned into a villain. The film also offers a uniquely positive view of death, treating it not as the end but as a second stage to reunite with loved ones and join in one big fiesta.

On the other hand, these same themes of death strike me as problematic. The depiction of the afterlife rings with Mexican culture but is entirely irreligious, as is the notion that our departed loved ones live on in happiness only as long as we remember them. The film’s conflict makes a point of noting that, without anyone to remember them, the dead will pass into the hellish Land of the Forgotten, which makes me wonder why no one is bothered by the fact that this will happen anyway within a few generations. I don’t remember my great-great-great grandfather; that doesn’t mean he’s not in Heaven. This idea of the afterlife is meant as a secular comfort but not a lasting one.

The Book of Life is also marred by tired clichés about being oneself against an overbearing parent; some awkwardly out-of-left-field pop songs, as if it’s trying to emulate Shrek; and oddly by the same animation I praised earlier. When I first saw the animation style, it reminded me of the Nickelodeon show El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera (picture below), and sure enough, director Jorge Gutierrez was also that show’s creator and apparently just translated the animation from 2D to 3D. While it works most of the time, certain scenes look strangely cheap with elaborate mustaches and protuberant noses that aren’t even trying for realism.

Here I go again, sounding all critical as if I dislike anything with flaws. Not so. The Book of Life rises as a delightful, energetic, and uniquely cultural change of pace from the usual stylings of Disney and DreamWorks while not coming off as low quality. Its themes of family and life and telling our own stories are commendable, and I enjoyed it, as I think most fans of animation will.

Best line: (one of the distraught schoolkids) “What is it with Mexicans and death?!”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2016 S. G. Liput

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