The Book of Life: Film Review

The Book of Life released in the UK on the 24th of October, following the US release a week before. The film centres on the story of Manolo (Diego Luna) and his quest to not only win the love of his life, but also save his town and the worlds of the dead.

This animated film comes from the Reel FX studio, the talent behind the 2013 film Free Birds. Based on that recommendation, I’d understand why you’d want to steer clear, but The Book of Life is different fare. The creators of film have stated that one of the inspirations behind the film was to create a film that actually looked like the concept art upon which it is based. With this basis, it’s clear to see the how this has become the film’s greatest strength. The films colours and images are some of the most beautiful seen in recent animation, easily beating Frozen or even How to Train Your Dragon 2 by way of originality or vibrancy.

However, for all the beauty evoked on the screen, The Book of Life is let down by its story. There are pop culture references which shouldn’t be a problem if done well, but in this case they are sometime shoehorned without necessary reason. This is most evident in the songs included in the film (who knew Zoe Saldaña could sing! – I didn’t). The Latin adaptations of the songs are great, and I’d love to see full versions on the soundtrack, but as with the serenading scene, the music can sometimes get in the way of the story. The plot as a whole meanders, to the point where given that animation is considered to cater to children first and foremost, I don’t think the younger generations will necessarily understand what’s going on. Of course the filmmaker should not feel the need to cater to everyone, but it is a problem when the plot gets in the way of the film being as good as it could be.

It’s exciting to see Latina influences on the silver screen, most of all within a medium not considered ‘lesser’, as telenovelas often are. Furthermore, the main story itself is a story within a story: the children is told the story as we are, by a museum guide who takes them to a secret part of the museum. Their reactions parallel reactions the kids themselves in the audience might have. This will either delight you (as it did with me), or annoy you if you feel the film is pretending to be too clever. The Book of the Dead unashamedly takes cliché concepts in their stride: there’s a love triangle, there are gods waging bets, there are corny resolutions. But the story within a story is meant to remind us – we are meant to approach this fantasy in all of its storytelling wonder.

In many ways, both with the music and plot, the film is not meant to or will, compete with films from the Two Ds. Everything in The Book of the Dead is more complex, but its attempted over cleverness may have got the better of it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: the animation and design of the Land of Remembered still takes my breath away when I think about it, and I’d be happy to see that section of the film again. However, aside from the two gods, I think the characters are too one-dimensional and the plot too anchorless for the animation to save it.

All in all, I hope that any faults are just a bit of teething for the Reel FX team and they can build on the beauty so evident throughout The Book of Life. In time, perhaps they could emerge as new competitors to the juggernauts that are Disney and Dreamworks. It’s time Western animation had more players in the ring.

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