By Kathryn Mineer, Thursday Review contributor
More often than not, the concept art for a movie is far more grandiose than the actual finished product. Character designs are simplified, color palettes are toned down, and all the more intricate minutiae seems to get lost altogether in the translation from artist’s vision to silver screen.
Jorge Gutierrez decided his animated film—The Book of Life—would not suffer a similar fate. Decreeing that his film would include all the “glorious art” that usually only sees the light of day in the “The Art of” type-books, or in those magazine articles featuring “what could have been” glimpses of storyboards, Gutierrez avoids compromise and surpasses expectations. The Book of Life is a feast for the eyes, filled to the brim with vibrant color, charming characters, and loving attention to every detail. It’s hard not to be captivated by this fast-paced tale set in the heart of Mexico.
The story starts out with two boys—Manola and Joaquin—who are both vying for the heart of their female friend, Maria. Two deities of the afterlife—La Muerte and her husband Xibalba—notice this and use their young love as the basis for a wager. Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten, where departed souls with no one to honor them after their deaths waste away in misery. La Muerte reigns over the Land of the Remembered, a land of eternal celebration where those whose families honor the memories go to spend the afterlife in style. Tired of spending eons in such a depressing place, Xibalba bets that if Joaquin wins Maria’s heart, he will switch domains with La Muerte. Likewise, La Muerte bets that if Maria falls in love with Manolo, Xibalba will cease meddling in human affairs forever.
Not satisfied with just sitting back and watching, however, Xibalba tips the scales in his favor, gifting Joaquin with a medal that grants him near invincibility. When Maria returns from boarding school in Spain as an adult she finds that Joaquin has become a famous hero admired by everyone in town due to the medal’s influence. Manolo has also grown up, becoming a bullfighter as per his father’s wishes despite his own desire to be a musician. Both do their best to impress her and when it becomes evident that Manolo’s sincerity has charmed Maria over Joaquin’s ostentatious showboating, Xibalba intervenes, forcing Manolo to undergo various trials in the afterlife in order to return to the mortal world and be reunited with Maria.
The entire narrative is framed under the pretext of a museum guide using wooden figures to illustrate the tale to a group of children on a field trip and the movie definitely feels like it was made to appeal to children first and foremost. The characters are all heavily stylized and the plot moves at a fast—at times bordering on hyperactive—pace. The entire movie clocks in at 95 minutes, and while the filmmakers do pack in a lot of heart into those 95 minutes, at times the film felt more like a long episode of a television cartoon than a feature film, especially in regards to the comedy.
Many of the jokes relied on funny voices and slapstick to land the laughs, and many—in this reviewer’s opinion—missed the mark. Even though I wasn’t particularly wowed by the comedy, however, the visuals and the movie’s overall message certainly make it worth seeing. The story behind The Book of Life is a story about following your heart despite what others might expect of you and many of the characters defy the stereotypes of what they’re supposed to be. Manolo is a thoughtful, gentle hero who isn’t afraid to show his emotions, Maria is a fearless, strong-willed leader who never becomes a damsel in distress, and Joaquin – who easily could have become a typical jilted lover who turns on his friends – overcomes his jealousy to fight alongside them for what is right. Aside from its character depth, the film’s music also triumphs, featuring everything from traditional up-tempo Mexican dance to mainstream hits—at one point Manolo strums out a heartfelt cover of Radiohead’s song “Creep” on his guitar—all culminating in an absolutely breathtaking ending musical number.
The Book of Life’s true strength lies in its visuals above all else—it is a loving, immaculately detailed tribute to the rich color and culture of Mexico. In this way it is unlike many of the other animated CGI films that hit the market these days. Whereas many films are made with big budgets to make even bigger profits, The Book of Life is the result of an artistic vision and a dream made reality. It has a heart to it that makes it worth watching and definitely makes it worth the ticket price.
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