The Book of Life (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A colorful romp on Day of the Dead

thebookoflife03 While it is a little too silly and frantic for me at times, “The Book of Life” is a colorful animation film decorated with several gorgeous sights to enjoy. Its story and characters are rather thin and predictable, and my level of interest was decreased around its action-packed climax in which lots of animation characters run or bounce around the screen, but it leaves some good impressions on me mainly due to its overflowing quirky style which deserves a better story then the movie itself provides.

Once upon a time, as told to a bunch of visiting kids at some big museum during the opening scene, there was a town called San Angel in Mexico, and we meet the three main characters of the story: Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), Joaquín (voiced by Channing Tatum), and María (vocied by Zoe Saldana). Manolo and Joaquín have been eager to get María’s affection since their childhood, and their early romantic competition on their mutual friend happens to draw the attention of two supernatural entities on the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday which I came to learn for the first time through Malcolm Lowry’s dark, harrowing alcoholic masterpiece “Under the Volcano” and John Huston’s equally unforgettable 1984 adaptation.

After watching on a love triangle between these three kids, La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo), a feisty goddess who rules the Land of the Remembered, makes a bet with her husband Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), a wily god who rules the Land of the Forgotten. If Manolo wins María’s love, Xibalba will never interfere with the matters of mortals, and La Muerte will exchange her place with Xibalba’s if Joaquín wins instead. La Murete gives her blessing to young Manolo later, and Xibalba gives young Joaquín a magic badge, which will make him invincible in any dangerous circumstance.

thebookoflife02  Several years later, María returns to San Angel after finishing her education in Europe, and two boys are ready to impress her. While he is more interested in pursuing musician career, Manolo has also been trained as a skillful bull fighter as demanded by his family tradition, and he is willing to enter the arena for María although he does not like killing bulls. In case of Joaquín, he has been regarded as the new defender of the town mainly thanks to the power of his magic badge, and General Posada (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui), María’s grumpy old father who is also the leader of the town, supports Joaquín’s wish to marry María.

After a number of silly comic situations involved with the courtships of Manolo and Joaquín toward to a woman they both love as before, María finds herself drawn to more to Manolo, but, unfortunately, he is soon tumbled into the realm of afterlife before María accepts his proposal. Determined to return to his woman, he starts his journey across the realm of afterlife, and there are several perils he must go through for reuniting with her.

As a fantasy story packed with larger-than-life caricatures whose personalities are mainly and instantly defined by their appearances, the movie does not feel the need to look realistic, so it gleefully goes wild with its own style. While they are digital animation characters, the characters in the film are imbued with the texture of wooden puppets, and that unusual rendering provides extra visual amusement for us. They certainly do not look that realistic, but they look more stylish and colorful as fantasy tale characters, and I must confess that I was rather amused by how some of the characters in the film look more like trolls or some other kinds of monsters because of their exaggerated body parts.

thebookoflife04  And the movie has plenty of things to unleash on the screen as the story steps into the realm of afterlife. Drenched in bright, vibrant colors, the Land of the Remembered are stuffed with lovely details as a place where everyone is always on festive mood, and the Land of the Forgotten makes a striking contrast through its dark, desolate landscapes where forgotten souls are soaked in their miserable solitude. There is also a wondrous place called the Cave of Souls, and we meet an ebullient entity called the Candle Maker (voiced by Ice Cube), who supervises the matters of the living while being surrounded by thousands of candles representing countless lives on the Earth.

As hopping around difference places during its later part, the movie throws more stuffs into the story, and that is where it becomes shakier. Its finale is involved with a bunch of nasty bandits who are going to wipe out San Angel and its people, and I began to feel a bit lost and tired as watching lots of frantic actions zipping across the screen. This sequence is not entirely without fun and excitement, but I have seen other similar animation action stuffs for years, and it did not particularly interest me much.

The actors are well-cast while providing nice voice performances to the film. Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, and Zoe Saldana handle their stereotype characters well with humor and energy, and Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo are well-matched as two opposing forces who are still attracted to each other despite their rocky relationship. The most fun in the film comes from Ice Cube, and he certainly enjoys every minute of his scenes with lots of irrepressible jolly spirit for his avuncular character.

The director/co-screenplay writer Jorge Gutierrez did a competent job in making a good-looking animation film coupled with interesting cultural flavor, but “The Book of Life”, which was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, is not entirely successful for several reasons. Its occasional use of modern pop songs are not that effective in many cases, and I have some doubt on whether the museum part works. I had a fair share of entertainment during my viewing, and it is surely a lot more cheerful than “Under the Volcano”, but I still think it could have been better.


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