The Book of Life Review

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By: Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)

There are certain forces in this world that have the power to take our lives in directions we may have never seen coming. One of those is the power of love. Falling for someone and noticing yourself change in ways you never thought possible, doing things you had never done before, experiencing feelings that may be new; these are all aspects that love can bring out of the most grounded of individuals. Another force is that of friendship. How many people are still friends with people you’ve known from elementary school? You may be in your 20s or 30s and been friends with these people for near 20 years. They are your extended family and you’d do anything for them and vice versa. Love and friendship are driving forces in the latest animated film from first-time director Jorge R. Gutierrez, The Book of Life.

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A group of rebellious students on a field trip are taken aside by a museum guide (Christina Applegate) and told about a legend. Ever since they were children, music-loving Manolo (Diego Luna) and the town hero, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), have both been in love with their feisty friend, Maria (Zoe Saldana). Due to her free spirit behaviors, her father ships her off to Europe at a young age to learn to be a lady. Each boy chooses to wait for her to return and, on her 18th birthday, she does. Manolo is now a famous bullfighter, though he longs to play his music, and Joaquin is the protector of the town, and both men intend to gain the favor of Maria. But there is more to it than appears, as two deities have made a bet on who will win Maria’s hand. Sensitive Manolo has been selected by the kindly La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the Land of the Remembered while Joaquin is chosen by her devious husband, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who oversees the Land of the Forgotten. Each deity has something to gain and lose and they both want to win. The stage has been set and the fates of Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria lie in the balance.

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The Book of Life is a visual joy to behold. Since the museum guide is telling the story using wooden figurines, all of the characters have articulated joints, which make them more or less resemble marionettes. Joaquin even has a square jaw to help emphasize this point. Yet, despite the wooden toy appearance, their body language and eyes are about as expressive as you could get from this type of film, telling a story outside the words. Gutierrez also creates various different worlds within the film, each with its own texture, characters, and feel to it. From the museum, to the world of our main characters, to the world that is the Land of the Remembered and that of the Land of the Forgotten, each world has its own life to it and the characters also have their own different appearances in each world. It is truly a visual masterpiece.

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From the beginning, the story pushes us to cheer for Manolo. From his tender-hearted side, his unwillingness to kill bulls in the ring, and his amorous love he has for Maria and the way he is able to convey that through his music, you can’t help but root for him to be the victor. And not to say that Tatum’s Joaquin isn’t cheer-worthy, but he’s just much less so. But we know that when a film constantly pushes us to back one of the main characters in their pursuit of a goal, there is inevitably something negative down that rabbit hole. And, in that sense, the film becomes predictable very early on. Another down side of the film was the use of Ice Cube as the Candle Maker, almost taking on a role similar to that of the late Robin Williams’ Genie from Aladdin. It just doesn’t work given the setting, the Hispanic culture throughout, the tone of the film, and the drive going forward. It feels completely out of place and, even though the character has a couple entertaining lines, he more or less falls flat on his face and feels out of place.

The Book of Life is wonderful to look at, has some touching moments, and is musically creative as well. But the story is predictable and Ice Cube just throws it out of whack. The story also focuses heavily on the adults, the themes of love and friendship, and that of life and death, so younger children may not necessarily be entertained. There is no Olaf in this film, nor a reindeer with personality to keep the kids entertained. Can you take the kids to see it? Of course. Will they sit through the whole thing and be entertained? I dunno. The Book of Life is entertaining for what it is, just don’t expect anything groundbreaking or up to the level of Frozen.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


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