One thinks of Mexico, and images of sombreros, chilies, and an array of bright colors are the cliches instantly brought to mind. This may be exactly what happened to director Jorge R. Gutierrez when he came up with the idea for The Book of Life—his newest project with 20th Century Fox Animation. It seems that, in order to divert attention from the bizarre and somewhat ridiculous plot line, Gutierrez has crammed every known Mexican stereotype into this picture. Fortunately for him, his efforts have paid off and the audience members are treated to a 90-minute spectacle, full of beautiful and eye-catching artwork. It is therefore no surprise that a book, The Art of ‘The Book of Life’, has already been released.
The film focuses upon Manolo (Diego Luna), a young Mexican matador whose real passion in life is music. He gets caught up in a battle with his childhood friend, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), to win the love of the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana). At first look, this appears to be the conventional romance with a predictable ending. In fact, this film is anything but predictable. All changes with the arrival of Le Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who controls the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who controls the sinister Land of the Forgotten. These two spirits make a wager over which boy Maria will choose to marry. The addition of this sub-plot takes the film in a completely different direction, bringing it into a world of two-headed snakes and life after death.
There are many layers to this movie. Firstly, the story is told by a 21st century museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) to a bunch of unruly “detentioners,” drawing an interesting parallel between the old and new. This method of framing the narrative is effective, and the children’s sarcastic and witty comments give much-needed humor to a film that deals primarily with death. The introduction of many different lands and spiritual worlds, however, is a little hard to grasp, especially from a child’s perspective. The plot seems like a series of disjointed sketches that reach no real conclusion. Many important themes are skimmed over. Manolo’s struggle to be accepted as a musician, or the pressure felt by Joaquin to live up to his father’s legacy could both be central plots in themselves. In an attempt to tie together too many significant ideas, the action in the film is one-dimensional and shallow.
Even the characters in the film lack stability. From the beginning, Xibalba is set up to be the villain whom we are all hoping will be defeated. This is, however, not the case. Despite the fact that he cheats, lies and organises Manolo’s death, Xibalba is, by the end, portrayed simply as a mischief-maker. Chakal (Dan Navarro), the real villain, is only introduced moments before the end, leaving the audience unsure of whose side to be on.
Furthermore, the integration of well-known songs into the plot is a little embarrassing. It is almost impossible not to cringe when Manolo bursts into a chorus of Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait” or even more so, Radiohead’s “Creep.” Not only are these songs far from what children probably want to hear or sing along to, but they appear to have been fitted in randomly or at the last minute—perhaps in a desperate last attempt to improve the film.
This is where the problems lie. Throughout the entire film, we are given the impression that the filmmakers had no faith in The Book of Life. The confusing plot lines, shallow characters, and awkward singing are all ruses to make the film more popular. What is undoubtedly an animation masterpiece has been somewhat spoiled by the inability to stop while ahead. Disappointingly, The Book of Life takes on too much at once, leaving the only remarkable aspect—the drawings—overshadowed by everything else.
Featured Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Animation