Children's & Middle Grade · TV & Movies

Review: The Book of Life (2014)

Does anybody else hate it when “book” is in the title of a movie? Just me? Okay. That aside, I saw The Book of Life yesterday and deeply enjoyed it. The animation is beautiful, vibrant, and creative, and the characters are too. Before I start talking about the plot… Oh gosh, that animation. Gorgeous.

The Book of Life poster

If you haven’t heard of the movie yet, it’s a Day of the Dead movie (timed to come out just before Halloween). La Muerte and Xibalba, two gods of the underworld(s), lay a bet on three kids: Both boys, Manolo and Joaquin, want to marry the girl, Maria. Each god picks a side, and they wager their kingdoms on it. Maria leaves for school in Spain, and we jump to them as adults, when Maria returns. Manolo just wants to play his guitar, but he comes from a long line of famous bullfighters, and they want him to continue the tradition. Joaquin, under Xibalba’s influence, has become a famous action hero who defends the town against bandits. Maria, for her part, is outspoken, smart, and action-packed, but signals she’ll be receptive to their advances if they’re genuinely interested. The men are totally aware they’re competing to impress Maria, but Xibalba rigs the game, and Manolo ends up having to travel through the underworld(s) to win Maria and save the town. (The plot and style do bear a surface comparison to The Corpse Bride, or Tim Burton’s work in general, but I see that as mostly coincidental. You don’t need to enjoy Tim Burton to enjoy this, you just need to enjoy movies and art. That said, if you liked The Corpse Bride, you’ve GOTTA see this).

So, it’s two men fighting over a girl. Meh, right? Not really, because even though Manolo is highlighted in most descriptions, the story doesn’t belong to just one of the men, or even both. It’s also not the YA trope of the girl trying to decide between two boys she likes. Instead, the story is about three fully-realized people and the complexities of their relationship, embedded in their community and families. Each character has their own personality and trajectory. Even though the story has that “folk tale” quality, it’s a multilayered version. It’s the kind of folk tale that adults would enjoy and relate to just as much as their children, rather than the kind of fairy tale that’s explicitly representational and meant to teach a lesson.

Both the men are decent, good people, they just both have some unfortunate “bro” tendencies to overcome. I was rooting for both of them to do that, and they do. (As a matter of fact, I was also rooting for both of them in the romance storyline. All three of them love each other, right? They all learn to respect each other and get along, and they’ve always been a group of three, not two competing couples. Let’s just say my headcanon turns out a little differently). Maria’s story has some room for improvement, because she doesn’t grow or change — she starts awesome and stays awesome. (And she has a pet pig). That’s great, but without her own full arc, she remains a bit of a “reward” for the men. It works well enough for me in this situation, though, because she does have that fully-realized quality I mentioned. Even more important, the movie gave a presence to women in general, where other treatments of the time period (or outsiders’ treatment of the culture) might ignore them or only include Maria, since she’s sexy. Instead, women are present throughout the movie, as they would be in a real culture. They’re mothers, grandmothers, bullfighters, revolutionaries, goddesses, sometimes several things at the same time.

La Muerte and Xibalba
Gratuitous picture of La Muerte (my favorite character) and Xibalba (who looks oddly like Discord and acts like him too).

Speaking of the culture, director Jorge R. Gutierrez has done an excellent job of demonstrating the rich content to be mined in Mexican stories. I’m really happy to see this story come from within that culture, from creators who understand it. Gutierrez is Mexican. Manolo and La Muerte, (arguably) the two most important characters, are both voiced by accomplished Mexican actors, and they’re not the only ones. It makes a palpable difference — the movie is a story, not an exoticism. The treatment of bullfighting was also excellent. It is something with a long tradition and history, but it’s also needless cruelty. Both those things can be true and honored at the same time, and Gutierrez does that.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. There’s a vaguely-mariachi version of “Creep” by Radiohead, and that’s just the beginning! The music creates a modern, fun, funky tone, and totally works within the movie, especially given the framing story of modern kids in a museum. It sets the right tone, of a fairy tale that’s living and changing and speaking to modern emotions.

The Book of Life was a high-quality movie that will bear multiple rewatchings. I keep trying to call it “effortless,” but that’s not the word at all. It’s skillful, never strained, but it’s the sort of skill that shows off all the dedication and passion of the creators behind it. Recommended for all ages.

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