Despite being the second effort by newer coming Reel FX, The Book of Life is a breath of fresh air for the animation landscape. New masters have arrived.
The Book of Life tells the story of three childhood friends: Manolo, a guitar-loving bull fighter; Joaquín, the decorated hero of the town; and María, a beautiful maiden who is the object of the two men’s affections. One day, the Mexican spirits La Muerte and Xibalba decide to meddle in the affairs of the humans when they bet on which boy they think will ultimately win María’s heart.
But María is sent to boarding school in Europe, so Manolo and Joaquín begin working hard at their respective professions in hopes of wooing María when she returns. She indeed does does return years later as a refined young women and she begins to fall for the caring and authentic Manolo, but feels obligated to be with the pompous hero Joaquín to make her family happy. All of that goes away when Manolo is bitten by a snake, which Xibalba planted to win the bet. Manolo dies and arrives in the Land of the Remembered, where he meets his ancestors. Will he be able to cheat death and return to the land of the living?
For a film based on the premise of death, The Book of Life is very colorful, joyful and positive, which is really the foundation of the Día de los Muertos holiday. The holiday is about celebrating and remembering the dead, not mourning them. There is slight concern that the US studio might trample on the beloved holiday in the process, but in reality, Reel FX paid a respectful and fantastic tribute to this obscure holiday that is little known outside of Mexico.
Some may find a love triangle trite, but in The Book of Life it felt very fresh. Each boy was differentiated by their motivations and career path and María was a smart, independent woman capable of making her own decisions. I loved that the film was a blatant romance; it felt like a period romantic comedy and would definitely be a great date movie. While many animated films have romantic subplots, nowadays they rarely are the main focus, so having the romantic plot central to the film was refreshing.
While the movie focuses on the lovestruck trio, Manolo gets the most attention, which is a good choice because he is the most complex and interesting of the three. He struggles between living up to his family bull fighting legacy (despite not wanting to partake in the pinnacle act of the sport: killing the bull) and wanting to follow his passion of playing the guitar. His mother is dead and therefore his father rules with an iron fist, drilling into him his duty to the Sanchez family. But once he visits his dead family members later in the film, he is able to see a different perspective.
Another plane in which the film delivers is the visuals. The characters look as if they were carved out of wood, which is is a new and incredibly appealing aesthetic. The animation is smooth as butter. I loved the distinctive contrast between the land of the living, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. The Land of the Forgotten actually feels cold and lifeless, while the Land of the Remembered feels warm and like one big giant fiesta.
The music was phenomenal and another stand-out highlights. It was a nice blend of contemporary tunes and newly composed songs, all remixed with a distinct and toe-tapping mariachi style. I’m usually wary of having modern songs because I feel they date the movie, but the way that these songs were changed just enough to make them unique. I don’t normally feel inclined to go and buy film’s soundtrack, but this is one that I’ll definitely be checking out.
If there is one thing from which The Book of Life suffers it’s that, at times, there’s too much going on. Already the film’s color palette is intense, so having a lot of brightly colored characters running around during fight scenes is a lot to take in. I thought María’s pig was cute, but Manolo’s mariachi group of friends were obnoxious and not needed. It was as if the creators thought they needed some funny side characters to balance out the romance scenes. But they didn’t add anything and really were throw away characters when it was all said and done.
The Book of Life comes from an up-and-coming studio whose first feature-length attempt was the unimpressive Free Birds. They must have been saving all their ammo for this film because it is impressive on so many levels: the story, music and visuals are top notch and rival that of the bigger studios. With The Book of Life, I’m really excited for more that this studio has to offer in the future to the world of feature animation.
The Book of Life leaves you on a tangible high. It’s happy, fun and uplifting. The story mechanics are clever and the character designs are out-of-this-world gorgeous. The Book of Life is a must-see for 2014.