Movie Review: The Book of Life

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The gods of the underworld make a bet on which of two boys a young girl will one day marry.

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Jorge Gutierrez, 2014

Misbehaving children visiting a museum are told a story from the Book of Life by their tour guide. In the story, shortly after the Mexican revolution, a small town touched by death is visited by the gods of the two underworlds: the beautiful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules over the Land of the Remembered, and the eerie Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who rules over the Land of the Forgotten. The two gods see three children playing and decide to make a bet on which of the two boys the girl will marry. Though the three friends are soon separated, the return of Maria (Zoe Saldana) from Europe reignites the men’s old jealousies. Now all grown up, the brave, arrogant soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) struggles to win Maria’s affections over the musical, romantic bullfighter Manolo (Diego Luna). Tricked by Xibalba, Manolo must journey through the underworlds on the Day of the Dead in order to save his lady love and his town.

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Seriously, I’m a little obsessed with El Muerte.

Sigh. I was so excited to see The Book of Life, based almost entirely on the fact that it’s incredibly beautiful looking. The rich cultural references in every frame of this film are betrayed by an overly simplistic and frankly offensive storyline in which Maria is a pawn of both the gods and the men in her life. The film tries to make up for the thinness of its plot with an overabundance of quirky characters and bright, frenetic visuals. Its central characters, Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin, are barely developed beyond the wooden dolls that their design is based on (stunning, by the way, I can’t say enough about it). Joaquin provides the majority of the laughs, and is, in many ways, more interesting than the heroic Manolo; his egotism and arrogance are encouraged at every step by the society that surrounds him. Meanwhile, Manolo embarrasses his family with his gentle kindness and creativity, refusing to kill bulls and live up to the family name. The film never really lands Maria, attempting to make her a “strong female character” in spite of her circumstances, and instead creating a two-dimensional woman with no flaws who still never has any agency at all. The film’s supporting characters mine a richer vein, but are cycled through so rapidly that you’re barely attached to one character before they’re replaced by another.

The film’s genuine interest in a variety of Mexican cultural roots is far more interesting. Its handling of death is sweet and something that could be very influential on the children the film is aimed at, and La Muerte and Xibalba are gifts. Their centuries-old debate over the nature of humanity and how they play that out with the humans is fascinating; the film implies that this is just the latest in a series of similar bets. La Muerte is full of optimism and goodness, while Xibalba believes the worst of people, and manipulates events in order to prove his case. While he is technically a villain, they’re both so wonderful to watch that it barely feels that way; the way they’re designed is a glory to behold (his EYEBALLS are TINY SKULLS!!!). They’re later joined by the Candle Maker (Ice Cube), who is also a glowing delight. The movie might have been better served by focusing on them as the protagonists. The Book of Life also features dubiously chosen pop songs (Creep is complex at best, and certainly not a romantic anthem) that then show up how poorly written its original songs are. The choice to use a framing device is also dubious, as it does more to take you out of the action than keep the momentum going. It’s genuinely difficult to remember what actually happens in the film, although images are still firmly implanted in my mind; I think that says more about it than writing more about my opinions.

The Book of Life on IMDb

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