Sunday, November 2, 2014

THE BOOK OF LIFE Is a Fantastic Day of the Dead Celebration


- This is shaping up to be a great year for animated films. Earlier in 2014, The Lego Movie was an awesome surprise. And now, there's another fantastic non-Pixar, non-Disney, non-Dreamworks animated film that is truly something unique and different, all the while telling a classic, timeless story. THE BOOK OF LIFE is a visual feast and a great story - a fairy tale about family that reminded me a lot of the first How to Train Your Dragon, in terms of mixing imaginative fantasy with genuine emotion.

Inspired by the holiday and unique aesthetic of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration THE BOOK OF LIFE is a film that clearly places a lot of importance on conveying the joy and traditions of the festival to a wide audience. With its simultaneously colorful and macabre imagery, the holiday combines the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween with a more personal touch - because it is a time when families honor dead relatives and celebrate the lives they lived. And so the movie is framed in such a way where the entire story is, in fact, a story-within-a-story - a narrative choice that I questioned at first, but that ultimately shows the Day of the Dead as part of a tradition meant to be shared and passed on. To that end, the film begins with a group of rambunctious kids on a field trip to a museum, where a tour guide captures their attention with a story about the Day of the Dead.

And what a story it is. In old Mexico, two deities - La Muerte, ruler of the colorful Land of the Dead, and Xibalba, ruler of the bleak in-between domain of forgotten souls, make a wager. The bet revolves around a group of three young friends - Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. Both boys have eyes on Maria, but for the time being, Maria is content to just be part of a trio of friends. But La Muerte and Xibalba decide to place bets as to which of the two boys Maria will eventually marry - Manolo (who dreams of being a musician despite his father's wishes for him to go into the family business of bull-fighting), or Joaquin (who wishes to honor his deceased father by becoming a great soldier, just like his dad). When the story begins, the three friends are just kids. But later, we rejoin them as young adults, and we see how La Muerte and Xibalba have attempted to influence events in their favor. What's more, in the second part of the story, which picks up as Maria returns from schooling abroad, and Joaquin returns from military adventures, the friends' village faces an outside threat from invading bandits, led by the sinister Chakal. The danger posed by Chakal seems to be a situation tailor-made for headstrong Joaquin to shine. But Manolo - even though he shies away from being the matador his family wants him to be - may yet be the hero his village needs. Especially once he has to visit the Land of the Dead, and help recruit long-departed souls to aid in his village's fight.

The way the story plays out is unexpectedly heartfelt. Sure, we've seen these kinds of stories before, but what's new here is the fantastical wrinkle of Manolo being connected to his lineage not just through his father, but through an entire chain of relatives that still exist in the Land of the Dead. It's a pretty amazing way to talk about the weight of our family and history and how it affects us. Manolo comes from a long line of proud bullfighters, and there's a crushing weight of disappointment that is felt when he cannot bring himself to embrace that tradition. And yet, ultimately, Manolo is strengthened by his family's traditions - once he realizes that it's okay to also go his own way. I've got to admit: as the movie rushed towards a thrilling conclusion, in which the dead come to the aid of the living, and Manolo is literally hoisted up by multiple generations of his family ... it sort of gave me chills. The movie deals with complex themes of family and identity in a way that's both a lot of fun and seriously affecting.

Aesthetically, the movie looks absolutely amazing. I sort of fell in love with the whole Day of the Dead art style back in the day thanks to Grim Fandango, and THE BOOK OF LIFE does that work of art one better. Just as The Lego Movie brilliantly used CG animation to capture a very distinctive look and feel, so too does this film mimic the look of the traditional Day of the Dead figures in a way that hasn't really been seen before on the big screen. It's funny, because in those opening framing scenes, when the modern-day school kids visit the museum, I was feeling underwhelmed by the movie's visuals. But once the story proper starts, the film really comes alive. And once Manolo ventures to the Land of the Dead, things (ironically) *really* come alive. The way that the mythical city is visualized - full of vibrant color and teeming with (undead) life - is truly stunning. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez does a fantastic job here - I'm not familiar with previous work of his, but here, he nails it. Who I am familiar with, of course, is producer Guillermo Del Toro, and THE BOOK OF LIFE does display some signature traits of Del Toro's work - a humanistic look at the fantastic and horrific, eye-popping visual artistry, and a tangible love for cinema that seeps through every pore of the film. Indeed, THE BOOK OF LIFE is filled with all manner of fun little moments that will make movie and pop-culture geeks smile.

Similarly, the voice talent in the film is spot-on. Diego Luna is wonderful as Manolo - and impresses not just with his speaking, but with his soulful singing as well. Channing Tatum is also excellent as Joaquin - doing his best Will Arnett full-of-himself voice, while also bringing a likability and humanity to the character. Zoe Saldana, meanwhile, makes Maria much more than just a girl torn between two suitors. With Saldana's strength propelling her, Maria is quite a strong character. Of course, I also enjoyed the great Ron Pearlman as the scheming god Xibalba, as well as Kate del Castillo as La Muerta. Additionally, a ton of fun actors pop in for smaller roles, including favorites like Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo.

THE BOOK OF LIFE may not have the blockbuster name-recognition of some of the year's other big animated movies, but it's a fantastic film, on par with the best from Disney and Pixar. Not only that, but it's a crafted-with-love celebration of a culture that we don't often see in film or TV beyond cliches and stereotypes, and it brings a unique sensibility and art-style to the table. That said, there is a 100% universal story here about family and legacy, told in a fun, action-packed, visually-dazzling manner. Go see it.

My Grade: A-

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