The Book of Life is basically a microcosm of all the best and worst aspects of modern children’s animated feature films. At times, it bursts with creative energy, as its obvious adoration of Mexican culture can sweep you off your feet. At other times, it falls back on unnecessary pop culture tropes, trying much too hard to make the film relatable to the lowest common denominator. The result is a somewhat bland film that is wrapped in gorgeous art direction, but does the visual marvel of the film make up for the film’s missteps?
To start with the bland, the film’s story is not much to write home about. The two gods of the underworld decide to place a wager over which of two friends will marry their childhood friend, Maria. The first is Joaquin, an egotistic warrior living in his father’s shadow, who means well, but has no actual courage, as he relies on a magic amulet to make himself invincible. The second is Manolo, who comes from a family of bullfighters, yet wishes to be a musician, but is afraid of disgracing his family by following his dreams. Manolo is our obvious hero, while Joaquin is the unwitting pawn of the more evil god, who seeks to better his position in the land of the dead. Though the characters are likeable, the whole production feels more than a little trite, emphasizing the same morals that are used in every children’s flick, notably those of following one’s dreams and loving oneself. I do appreciate, though, that love interest Maria does make reference to the fact that women should not be prizes to be won, even if the film doesn’t seem self-aware that that’s basically all her role in the film amounts to.
Script-wise, the film is also lacking, as much of the film’s humor will fall flat for anyone but the smallest of children. In order to accommodate older audiences, the film tries to insert musical references to modern artists such as Mumford & Sons and Radiohead. There’s nothing clever about these insertions; they’re just there, and they feel lazy and awkward given the film’s predominantly folklore-inspired atmosphere.
And it is just that atmosphere that makes this film forgivable. This is a gorgeous film with some of the best art direction in a CG animated film from recent memory. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the characters all appear as traditional marionettes, with stringed joints and wooden features to boot. The environments, particularly in the land of the dead, are simply bursting with creativity, with minute touches that both feel original and pay homage to the cultural heritage of Mexico.
So, with that in mind, does The Book of Life warrant a recommendation? Eh, that largely depends. Personally, I found the film mostly inoffensive, and the art style is enough to differentiate it from the hoard of other same-y children’s films of the past few years. However, the plot and story are pretty forgettable, and even as I write this review, any details beyond the visual are leeching away from my memory. It’s not the worst way to spend ninety minutes, but I certainly think there are better films with which you could be doing so.
Guillermo del Toro was one of the producers for this one. Is that cause for disappointment, or do you suppose he was only involved on the aesthetic side of the production? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.