The Book Of Life – Two young boys compete for the affections of the feisty Maria: the musical wannabe Manalo – who comes from a long line of bullfighters and is being pressured by his father to continue the family tradition; and the bravado filled Joaquin – who wishes to be as brave as his deceased legendary father but is always coming up short. Little do they know as they grow older that the decision Maria may make is the subject of a bet between the ruler of the Land of the Remembered (La Muerte) and the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (Xibalba). With the balance of the underworld at stake, will Manalo, Joaquin or Maria be able to shake free from the past and the dark forces that are manipulating them?
The Book of Life (2014) – Jorge R. Gutierrez
Running Length: 95 mins
Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum
Genre: Animation, Comedy
‘THE BOOK OF LIFE’ REVIEW
Based around the infamous ‘Day of the Dead’ festival and steeped in Mexican folklore, on paper there is a lot going for the vibrant celebration that is present in ‘The Book Of Life’. It is not often you will see a movie, animated or not, that is drenched in such glorious colour, extravagant set dressing and cultural pizzazz. Using the ‘story within a story’ set up allows for the modern audience’s eye to be drawn into a heavily stylised exploration of traditional Mexican tales of the dead and the forces that guide them. But unfortunately ‘The Book Of Life’ is so excited to put its heritage on display that the movie suffers from being too ‘wham bam bam’ when a more subtle approach would have lingered longer in the mind.
The plot itself is fairly standard, if somewhat lacking in modern gender stereotype advances. Two boys vie for the affections of their female childhood friend and as they all grow up it gets more serious and competitive. Of course, the possibility that Maria might have the freedom of will to pick neither is never an option, no matter how much sass the script tries to pour into her character. Male-centric characterisation aside, the one-upmanship of Manolo and Joaquin (combined with their manipulation at the hands of the trickster Xibalba) is fairly standard and thankfully there is little in the way of actual aggression from either party. The result is an overall warmth with no challenge really biting hard but plenty of sassiness to tickle the laughter from you. But ‘The Book of Life’s’ main problem is that it is just too pumped up to settle into a groove.
Most characters are animated in a vastly exaggerated manner that goes one step beyond being ‘stylised’ and comes out as ‘mutated’. The editing throws quick gag after quick gag at you and is so saturated with modern pop culture references (including the use of modern songs – such as ‘Creep’ by Radiohead) that just jar by being so out of place and the movie shows a lack of confidence in the innate wonder that can already be mined from classic Mexican fables. When ‘The Book Of Life’ does slow down for a moment there is much to enjoy and the visit to the Land of the Remembered is an all too brief visual feast of central American splendour. There is a lot to enjoy in ‘The Book of Life’, but the sheer speed of the cuts and the over-reliance on high-energy gags means that it will more likely appeal to quick disposable fix tastes rather than be savoured as a treat for the whole family as years go by.
IS ‘THE BOOK OF LIFE’ SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?
When the voice over refers to the Mexican folklore creature the ‘Chupacabra’, it is referred to as ‘the legendary goat sucker’. The animation shows it ‘eating’ a goat by biting it suddenly and leaving nothing but bones left. The other goat to the side of it drops some poo in fear. This is quick and treated as a comedy moment but children who are upset by animal suffering may not like this moment.
Many families are visiting a graveyard and are shown to emotionally miss their loved ones. This is a knowing sadness and no-one breaks down. There is lot of parental reassurance. However, as it is the Day of the Dead the ghosts of their loved ones are also walking among them, unnoticed. Nothing about this is shown to be scary. Manolo misses his mother and there is a touching scene where his father comforts him and tells him his mother will always be there so long as she is remembered. This may be emotional for children who have lost a family member.
Maria wants to rescue a cute pig that is in a pen. The shot quickly cuts to a butcher sharpening his cleavers and shows pictures of pigs in pots. This is very quick but the message of impending butchery is clear.
A fully grown Manolo has trained to be a bullfighter but whilst he enjoys the showmanship, he cannot bring himself to kill the bull at the end. However, he is scolded for this by his father who is shown to be ashamed that his son is not following the family tradition. Being made to feel guilty for not killing an animal may upset children sensitive to animal cruelty especially as they are unlikely to know about the traditions of Mexican bullfighting. Manolo’s father takes over at the end of the bullfight and then hands the sword back to him and says, ‘and that’s how you finish a bull’. This is off camera and no blood or suffering is shown, but Manolo is upset.
A young character is led astray by a suspicious older male character. This is made clear as something that should not be done but the ‘stranger danger’ message may be something to put across to children at this point. The young character is bitten by a snake and collapses. Other characters are upset and some are distraught. Shortly after, another character is also tricked into being bitten by a snake and they die. Their spirit travels to the Land of the Remembered.
When one character learns of the death of the other who was bitten by a snake they are very upset. They are comforted by other characters but they still sob.
In the Land of the Remembered there is a short scary moment where Xibalba glides across a table to threaten a character. This is shown in close up on the screen but the character in question is not threatened at all.
One character cries over the dead body of the one who was earlier killed by the snake bite.
During the climactic fight with an evil bandit, the bandit activates all the bombs on their body making it clear that they intend to blow themselves up and ‘take the whole town’ down with them. A large town bell falls nearby and two characters battle to pull it over the bandit. One character sacrifices themselves by kicking the other away and pulling the bell over the bandit and themself so that the explosion is contained within. The camera shot pans out and shows a muted explosion from a distance. The towns people are shocked and there is a tense few moments before the scene ends with the ‘good’ character shown unharmed.
CAN I SEE A CLIP?
VERDICT – IS ‘THE BOOK OF LIFE’ FOR KIDS?
Adults may find the fast editing and hyper-exaggerated jokes and animation a little grating but this is a movie aimed at the high-sugar pop culture generation. ‘The Book Of Life’ is at its best when it fully relaxes into the strength of its own source material, such as the sumptuously animated Land of the Remembered and traditional styled Mexican music (check out ‘The Apology Song’ for a great example). The forced insertion of modern pop culture songs and jokes ring false every time, but then for children this will likely be less of an irritation than to adult sensibilities. Although there are some emotional and scary moments we feel these are short and mild and so would recommend ‘The Book Of Life’ as suitable for children aged 5 and over.
- Violence: 1/5 (Manolo is expected to kill a bull. There is some mild physical fighting but no injury detail or suffering)
- Emotional Distress: 3/5 (Death is a recurring theme and several characters are upset at the passing of others. However, they are usually comforted by loved ones)
- Fear Factor: 2/5 (Xibalba can be scary at times but he is introduced as mildly comedic and ineffectual at first and so his later moments come over as petulant and mischievious rather than too scary and other characters do not react to him with fear. The famed bandit Chakal is big and feared by the townspeople but he is a typical baddie character to be fought and is not overly scary)
- Sexual Content: 1/5 (the competing for Maria’s affections is always shown as sweet and with genuine love)
- Bad Language: 0/5 (some very mild wordplay, such a when several ‘ghost’ bulls merge into one large spirit bull and one character exclaims, ‘this is a whole lot of bull!’)
- Dialogue: 2/5 (constant talk of death as well as verbal encouragement to kill a bull)
- Other Notes: Deals with themes of family, tradition, infatuation, destiny, gambling, standing up to bullies, the stress of doing what is expected of you, following your dreams, and heritage of the family line.
Words by Michael Record