‘Book of Life’ stuns the eyes, numbs the mind

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First Posted: 10/20/2014

“The Book of Life” is very pretty. In fact, it is the prettiest film you’ll see all year. It’s so pretty it’s probably being wasted as a movie. It should have been a gallery show or an oversized coffee-table book. Visually speaking, “The Book of Life is something that shouldn’t be watched but instead, carefully taken in and absorbed. The visual palette is Mexican folk art crossed with the plastic, dayglow, skull aesthetics of a carnival dark-ride from the sixties. Characters are depicted as angular marionettes that out creepy-cutesy the creepy-cutesy puppets in Henry Selick’s “A Nightmare Before Christmas”. Everything about “The Book of Life” suggests what a collaboration between Rankin-Bass and weirdo outsider artist Joe Coleman would have looked like. From a design standpoint, “The Book of Life” is unmatched. It’s fresh, innovative and unlike any children’s film released this or any other year.

It’s unfortunate the same couldn’t be said about the characters or the story.

Using the Day of the Dead –the Mexican holiday of remembrance – as a backdrop, “The Book of Life” revolves around three friends, sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna), arrogant Joaquin (a miscast Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) who we are constantly assured is a strong, independent woman even though her character doesn’t have much to do beyond staring longingly at Manolo and Joaquin. Unknown to the trio is that they are merely pawns in a wager between two lords of the Underworld, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman). If Manolo wins the heart of Maria, La Muerte will continue ruling The Land of the Remembered, an otherworldly realm that’s depicted as a fun and magical place to go when you die even though it’s basically just one eternal “party” that you are forced to celebrate with your extended family.

Now, I don’t want to say that sounds like hell, because it’s not, but I don’t think anyone’s idea of heaven is to spend eternity in the banquet hall of some generic country club making strained small talk with your racist grandmother or an unstable, teddy bear collecting uncle. But that’s just me. Anyway, if Joaquin should marry Maria, La Muerte will be forced to take over Xibalba’s old realm The Land of the Forgotten, which, to me, seems preferable to The Land of Remembered because you just turn into a pile of dust and won’t hear an 88-year-old woman complain about her neighbors because, “they have Puerto Rican haircuts” for the rest of your afterlife.

“The Book of Life” is a very easy film to overrate because the animation is so intricately detailed, so incredibly striking that you can’t believe the rest of the movie is as lazy as it is. Cognitive dissonance sets in early. “Xibalba’s pupils are actually tiny cyclopic skulls”, you think to yourself. “This film can’t be as dull and obnoxious as it is”. Well, it is, unfortunately. Boasting a screenplay that feels like the spec script for an unmade series Nickelodeon passed on 15 years ago, “The Book of Life’s” storyline almost feels like an afterthought. The main protagonists are interchangeable and uninteresting, while the pop-cultural references are ever-present, stifling and frequently ill-advised. At one point Manolo can be heard singing a white-washed acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, a song that makes about as much sense in this film as Whitehouse’s “Why You Never Became a Dancer” would make on the soundtrack for “Toy Story 4”. But worst of all, “The Book of Life” is yet another children’s movie where the day is saved by a character who overcomes their fears, follows their heart and believes in themselves. Putting aside the fact that this is one of the tritest and most overused storylines in children’s movies, it’s 2014, is there any man, woman or child out there who is against the importance of believing in themselves or following hearts? If there is, I doubt “The Book of Life” is going to change that.