The winner this time ‘round was The Book of Life, a children’s movie centering on a Mexican holiday called The Day of the Dead which falls on November 2nd. I was cautiously optimistic going into this one and I’m happy to say that the film exceeded my expectations and rates a solid ‘good’ in my book. It doesn’t offer many surprises during the journey but it shows great visuals, likable characters, and an excellent look at the concepts of strength and courage. All in all it’s everything I’d hope for in a children’s movie. Except for the music, there’s really no redeeming the soundtrack they picked for this thing.
In my Boxtrolls review, I mentioned not really liking Claymation much. Despite my opinions of Claymation and stop-motion animation, I’m a huge fan of CG and traditionally animated films. I like the technology that goes into them, the effects they can pull off with so much more ease than a live-action, and just the general feel that you get when watching them. What I don’t like is when studios use the excuse that it’s okay that the plot was weak or the characters generic because “it’s for kids.” That’s just lazy and frustrates me every time because there are so many examples of great movies for children that remain entertaining to this day. Good news is that today’s film gets to be added to the pile of worthy films for children rather than just a cash grab to distract the offspring for an hour and a half while you nap.
I’m a sucker for good effects and this film didn’t disappoint. The animation shines most during the scenes of the Land of the Remembered (essentially Heaven). Everything is bright, vivid, and joyous, with all colors of the spectrum radiating from the screen. The last movie that transported me so effectively was Guardians of the Galaxy and they had three times the budget and the full might of Marvel Studios behind them. By visuals alone this is worth seeing on the big screen.
From here on watch yourselves because there are spoilers laying in wait!!!
The main characters aren’t quite as stunning as the setting. Manolo, our main protagonist is absolutely a character you’ve seen before. He’s charming enough, but doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He enjoys the spectacle of bull fighting but cannot bring himself to perform the final act of killing the bull (they also gloss over the fact that the bull would normally have numerous spears thrust into it during the fight before the actual killing blow because that would’ve likely damaged the PG rating). He’s a disappointment to his father and family, but still catches the eye of Maria, the love interest of the film. He eventually overcomes adversity, accepts himself for who he is, and ultimately wins the day. It’s a stock tale, but one told well enough to keep from feeling too stale.
His counterpart Joaquin is his childhood friend and the other one vying for the hand of Maria. He’s big, he’s brave, and he has a spectacular mustache. He is absolutely the model of masculine awesomeness. He also has a magic medal gifted to him by the semi-villainous Xibalba (played by the always delightful Ron Perlman) that makes him utterly immune to damage, death, stubbed toes, and any other inconvenience that mere mortals have to contend with. He’s a hero of the people and, well, a bit of an idiot when it comes to recognizing what Maria wants in a man.
Finally we’ve got the real star of the show: Maria. I like how she doesn’t fall victim to typical movie clichés. A frequent trope that films fall for is having the token tomboy tough girl. In this trope, the woman spends the entire film aggressively arguing that she’s every bit as tough as a man, until ultimately needing to be saved by one because he’s the hero and she’s not. Maria, on the other hand, simply acts when she feels things aren’t going the way she approves of them. She calls out both of the boys when they’re behaving like morons, but obviously cares about both of them. She wastes precious little time demanding to be treated as an equal and simply behaves as one regardless of what those around her are treating her as. Ultimately she does get caught by the generic bandit leader Chakal, but she isn’t a damsel. She just rolls her eyes at the development.
We see a handful of other characters in the Land of the Remembered that are colorful, witty, and entertaining. Just enough of their stories are told to make us want to know more but not to the point that it crowds out the main three. The gods Xibalba and La Muerte are ever present, their interest in the trio revolving around a bet for control of the Lands of the Remembered and the Lands of the Forgotten. Instead of simply making the darker Xibalba an outright villain, he comes across more as a grumpy husband, in love with La Muerte but bitter that she gets the finer things. Certainly not an admirable character, but not hateful either and the film actually ends on a kiss between the two deities rather than the typical wedding kiss you would usually expect.
Ultimately the movie is about balance rather than good overcoming evil as we tend to see with this type of movie. Manolo comes to terms with who he is rather than simply what his family wanted, Joaquin learns to be a hero without his magic medal of invincibility. Maria, well, she pretty much understood the shape of things from the outset and gets to marry the man she loves. All in all, thoroughly enjoyable.
But that music, gah. To say it is bad would be an understatement. Not only do they butcher classic songs and resurrect songs best forgotten, even their original songs play as trite and unnecessary. Manolo’s other love in life is music, he constantly has a guitar at his back or in his hands, and everything he plays is god awful. In another movie this would be a minor gripe but they made music a heavy part of his character and then used consistently lousy music. Make no mistake: The Book of Life is a good movie, but that soundtrack holds it back from being great. Absolutely worth a watch, especially if you have kids, you just may be wishing for a fast forward button when Manolo starts singing about his feelings.
Hope you enjoyed the review and here’s hoping you guys pick a great movie for me to see next week!