This year hasn't had a lot of animated features, but the ones I've seen so far (The LEGO Movie & How to Train Your Dragon 2) have both been excellent. I didn't necessarily have the same expectations for the somewhat under-the-radar release that was The Book of Life. With it's unique, almost stop-motion animation style, I anticipated something along the lines of Corpse Bride when I went into the press screening last weekend. The one thing that gave me hope in this picture being worthwhile was the involvement of Guillermo del Toro, who directed the recent Pacific Rim and many other visually resplendent films.
A small group of semi-delinquent school children are taken to a museum, where they are led to the Mexican section and shown a glowing text called "The Book of Life". They are told about a young man named Manolo who is competing for the affections of the beautiful Maria against his friend, Joaquin. Overseeing this struggle for Maria's affections are two gods, La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. On the annual Day of the Dead celebration, the two deities make a wager to see which of the two boys will go on to marry Maria. However, Xibalba has an ace in the hole after bequeathing a magical medal to Joaquin that will make him invincible.
My first impression of this film wasn't necessarily a positive one, as the goofy humor at the beginning reminded me of a direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell film or something (don't ask why that's my go-to reference). As the story progressed, however, I found myself enjoying the characters more and more. The fact that this is all more or less based on actual Mexican folk-lore was really intriguing to me, as that particular culture's mythology isn't often explored in cinema. The animation of the characters almost made them appear doll-like, as if carved and assembled entirely from wood. Some of the visuals go a little overboard at times, harkening back to action movie tropes that seem somewhat out of place, but otherwise I really enjoyed the animation in this film.
What I didn't enjoy quite as much were the musical choices. Taking recognizable (if not exactly fitting) songs and giving them a Mexican flare worked well in some instances, but was mostly a little pandering and unnecessary. Strangely, one of the few songs that was clearly an original composition stood out to me as easily the best in the entire film (titled, "The Apology Song"). It's not often you hear bands like Radiohead and Biz Markie in children's entertainment, and they definitely took me out of the movie every time they were used.
Other than that, I actually enjoyed this movie quite a bit. A lot of the story elements aren't that original, but the creative visuals and some of the surprisingly comedic dialogue carried my enjoyment through the weaker parts of the film. While I wouldn't say it's great, I do think this is a solid film that most kids are going to enjoy. It introduces some interesting ideas and folk-lore that we aren't often exposed to, and I appreciate the unique perspective director Jorge Gutierrez brings to the table. It isn't going to be in my top 10 for the year, but I'm happy to give The Book of Life three stars.
THE BOOK OF LIFE is rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
**Have you seen The Book of Life? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments section below!**