It’s an interesting coincidence that, after Ireland’s “Song of the Sea”, the next animated film I saw was “The Book of Life”, another folklore-inspired story; this time, one with Mexican roots. It really brought forward the main flaw of “The Book of Life”– disappointing lack of confidence in what should have been its main selling point: love and enthusiasm for Mexican myths and legends. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, since here we are dealing with a significantly less ambitious film, but I couldn’t help thinking that, while “Song of the Sea” never gave the impression that it was afraid of being too Irish, “The Book of Life” is, more or less, “Mexico explained to White Anglo-Saxons in a most pandering way”.
I’m not just saying that because I enjoy being mean: “Mexico explained to White Anglo-Saxons” is literally the film’s framing device, in which a group of naughty school kids listen to Day of the Dead stories told by a museum guide. After glimpses of much more interesting tales, real and imaginary, the storyteller settles on a love triangle between two boys, Joaquin and Manolo, and a girl, Maria. On the Day of the Dead, the rulers of the underworld, La Muerte and Xibalba, who enjoy bets very much, each choose one of the boys to win Maria’s heart when they grow up. Yes, it’s another story about women as a prize for a battle between dudes.
Sure, there are modern touches to the trope: in the old days, the “manlier” candidate, in this case famed warrior Joaquin, would have won by default; in 2014, Maria’s favours lean from the very beginning towards sensitive musician Manolo. Maria herself is the writers’ desperate attempt to appear less sexist: she’s not only beautiful, but also incredibly clever, brave, kind, educated and a master of martial arts. In a nutshell, she is flawless, which makes her a terribly written character, not to mention that her numerous qualities appear even more ridiculous in light of the fact that you could easily replace her with an inanimate object, let’s say, an umbrella that Manolo and Joaquin both want very much, and the story would remain virtually unchanged.
I frankly wish the whole film had been about La Muerte (who looks fabulous and is voiced by Kate del Castillo, one of my favourite actresses from my days of watching telenovelas), Xibalba and their realms, The Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. The whole concept of the Day of the Dead is so fascinating, it’s truly sad that here it became mostly a footnote to rather mundane romantic hijinks. “The Book of Life” does not trust its own roots, and it constantly dilutes them with attempts at “being cool”. A character voiced by Ice Cube to sound like a rapper was the last straw for me, especially since he shows up during the last third of the film, when everything descends into chaos. But my biggest disappointment was the music. How do you manage to make a film inspired by Mexican culture and fail at music? The Mariachi covers of pop songs were funny the first time, but by the fifth time or so, I was hearing nothing but “Non-Mexican audience, we are vigorously pandering to you” .
The best thing about “The Book of Life” is its visual aesthetic. All the characters in the main story start out as wooden puppets and look like wooden puppets, complete with visible joints and wood textures, which I found to be a delightful idea. The character design is wonderfully wacky and varied, ranging from terrifying to adorable, and the vibrant colours and patterns of the backgrounds are simply beautiful. The look of the film is fully realised and it can compare to the best of what I’ve seen in terms of modern animation lately. It’s definitely one of the most interesting and daring CGI films in terms of visuals- I’d love to get my hands on the “Art of” book. It’s just too bad that this level of visual artistry was not employed to serve a better story. In the hands of better writers and directors, “The Book of Life” could have been amazing. If anything, I suggest you watch the film on mute.