'The Book of Life'
‘The Book of Life’ has an amazing aesthetic that sets it apart from most animated family films. Unfortunately, beyond the pretty exterior, there’s very little here that hasn’t been seen endlessly before.
The film opens with a group of school children attending a museum where a tour guide pulls out a collection of puppets to tell a story. From there, those puppets come to life in a goofy narrative in which all the characters look like living, breathing versions of the puppets from the prologue. The crux involves a wager between dueling afterlife rulers (Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo) who bet over the fates of three children and which boy the girl will end up with. Flash-forward to young adulthood when the long missing Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns to her hometown to find her two childhood friends all grown up and successful. Diego Luna is is now a bullfighter, but would rather be a musician. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum’s character is a war hero. Cue a series of cheap family-friendly seduction scenes and even worse cheap cover songs. (Sigh…) Eventually, the story builds toward a battle between good and evil with the fate of the town and the love of Maria hanging in the balance. Ho-hum. You’ll never guess how this tale turns out unless you think about it for five consecutive seconds.
Director Jorge Gutierrez has designed a beautiful world with a Dia de los Muertos theme and a clever puppetry aesthetic. That’s undoubtedly what interested the visually imaginative Guillermo del Toro into producing the project. Indeed, the film looks amazing on the big screen. Unfortunately, the plot is a standard love triangle that differs from what you’ve see roughly a bazillion times before only in that the three friends never stop being friends (thus cutting any potential conflict or drama down significantly).
The music is comprised entirely of jukebox mariachi covers that bring back uncomfortable memories of ‘Shrek’, as does the humor, which is pretty much limited to racial stereotypes and slapstick. The celebrity voice cast are decent, but have far too little to work with for their roles to amount to much. The only thing that registers are the gorgeous designs and impressive action scenes, neither of which is enough to make ‘The Book of Life’ worth slogging through.
The biggest problem with the movie is simply the familiarity of this genre. Released 10-15 years ago, the gorgeous animation, simple storytelling and stunt-cast celebrity voices would have seemed exciting. Now that’s just the norm for family filmmaking. The unique aesthetic is the only part that distinguishes ‘The Book of Life’ from every other animated family film on the market. Beyond that, it’s just a slog of familiar elements, and not even one that offers fresh variations on familiar themes. There’s no shaking the feeling that you’ve seen it all before, and it’s hard not to get exhausted by all the cheap jokes and irritating pop songs.
For those who don’t mind the repetition, this is an entirely watchable bit of fluff. But for anyone who has been down this path too many times before, it’s hard to stay awake or even care. Pixar has set the bar too high. A merely competent family feature just isn’t good enough anymore.