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‘The Book of Life’ Review

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This Halloween we can all look forward to the cinematic release of The Book of Life, the newest feature from ReelFX in association with 20th Century Fox. Set around the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the film is a visual fiesta and well worth a watch.

The story is told by a museum tour guide to a group of children visiting her exhibit and follows the journey of Manolo as he competes with his childhood friend Joaquin for the love of Maria, all the while struggling between fulfilling his family’s expectations and being himself. The spirits of the dead, La Muerte and Xibalba, place a wager on who will win Maria’s hand, the stakes being their respective realms. Fearing he would lose the wager, Xibalba sends a snake to kill Manolo and so sends him on an epic journey through the ‘Land of the Remembered’ and the ‘Land of the Forgotten’ to return to Maria and save the town from Chakal and his bandits.

At only ninety-five minutes long the film packs in an awful lot in terms of story, characters and overlying themes, and still manages to tie-up all the loose ends to make a very satisfying, completely saturated film. It is in many respects however very cliché. The love triangle, both its beginning and its resolution, is predictable and similarly, the constant pushing of the idea that a pure heart is what is most important really grounds the film in the bracket of childrens’ cinema. There is one scene where we don’t care that it is cliché however, and that is the final confrontation of Manolo and his friends with Chakal’s bandits. The whole scene is one hilarious mishmash fight between the bandits and the raised dead members of Manolo’s family and cliché or not, it is highly entertaining!

The Book of Life (20th Century Fox)

The Book of Life (20th Century Fox)

The character models in the story are based off wooden block toys used by the tour guide at the museum to recount the tale. I was worried at first that the blockiness of the character models would result in fairly stilted animation but I was pleasantly surprised with the beautiful, fluid movement that the animators achieved. The style is incredibly refreshing and also lends itself extremely well to 3D, turning my generally negative attitude towards 3D cinema completely on its head; I would actively recommend going to see the film in 3D! There are also moments in the film, mostly used when we are introduced to the various members of Manolo’s family in the Land of the Remembered, which are animated in 2D. In a very flash-style, the characters are just as well suited to 2D animation as 3D, though of the necessity of changing medium I am not sure.

For three reasons I wish that the film was longer. First of all, it was unfortunate that so comparatively little of the duration of the film was set in the realms of the dead, as they are so spectacular to look at. Clearly a lot of time and effort went into designing these worlds and, in the particular case of the Land of the Remembered, so much detail was in there that I was sorry to not have had more time to take it all in. The second reason is that with so much story content, I felt sometimes like we were being rushed through; there was not enough time to pause after a sad moment to let it take effect, causing a small loss of integrity, nor was there enough time between each event happening to make me think that the characters had come to decisions themselves. Obviously the whole film was scripted, but there are moments where you really feel it and in this way the film loses some believability. The final reason is that I felt like the characters in the museum needed more development. As it stands I’m not entirely sure why they are necessary to the film other than to explain the wooden-block character design concept. There are moments in the film where we cut back to those characters and these cuts, lacking in both story and character development, just pull you out of the moment.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life (2oth Century Fox)

On a more positive note, the soundtrack of the film is fantastic. It is a mix of Spanish-style covers of popular songs with original songs and, while the film cannot be classed as a musical, work well to both further the story and as a medium for Manolo to express himself. The songs help to immerse you into the narrative and so even though they sometimes step over the line from sincere to corny, you can’t help but enjoy them.

In terms of voice casting, I felt that in general the filmmakers hit the nail on the head with some great performances from Diego Luna (Manolo), Zoe Saldana (Maria) and Ron Perlman (Xibalba), to name but a few, but unfortunately missed the mark in their casting of Channing Tatum as Joaquin. I can understand the angle that the filmmakers came from in choosing him for the part; Joaquin is a very stereotypically strong, cool, masculine character; a role that Tatum has played often, but his unmusical voice and accent grates against the lyrical Latino voices of his fellow main characters. Though other characters with American accents performed very well in their roles, making them their own, what really killed Tatum’s performance for me was that he couldn’t pronounce even the name of the town that the film is set in; San Angel.

As I have already mentioned, the wooden-block designs of the characters are fantastic. The film was filled with wonderfully varied characters both in design and personality. A real testament to this was looking at Manolo’s ancestors; each one of them was a Matador – the greatest of their respective times – but are each totally distinct from one another. For this reason, I was sad that Maria seemed to be just another of the hyper-feminist princesses that we’ve seen so much of lately, without any real personality of her own beyond her feminism. She is Princess Fiona from ‘Shrek’, but with less sass and has a pet pig instead of an Ogre. I felt that her feminist interjections were rather forced, but in fairness, she can kick butt!

Overall I would say that The Book of Life is an enjoyable film with a heart-warming reminder of the importance of remembrance. Maybe it won’t be for you if you don’t like musicals, and it can definitely be taken as your Halloween dose of sugar, but it is well worth a watch if only for the stunning visuals!

The Book of Life opens in cinemas across the UK this Friday, October 24th

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