The Other Side of Animation: The Book of Life

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I wouldn’t blame everyone or anyone saying that animated movies, anime, and animated shows all look the same today. I mean, this isn’t new, like how in the 90s, most Warner Bros and Don Bluth films were trying to look like Disney. In the 2000s to now, third-party animation studios want to look like the Dreamworks or Pixar/Disney films. A lot of animated cartoons look like Adventure Time. Anime today, with the exception of the rare few, all look the same. Sure, sometimes, the reasons why they make these artistic decisions are easy to explain, like how the Adventure Time look is easier to animate, and so on. However, it does end up making everything look really forgettable or mediocre when it’s done wrong. I know that in the end, it‘s what the show and movie offer in terms of story and character, but you have to admit that everything starts to blend together at one point. This is why I adore The Book of Life. While it has its problems, it’s a visually pleasing film that has a unique look that stands out from everyone who’s trying to copy and failing to be the next Dreamworks. For those that want some info on this film, The Book of Life was released back in 2014 in October by Free Birds’ studio Reel FX Entertainment, and was directed by Jorge Gutiérrez, the individual behind El Tigre. Now then, let’s get started!

The story revolves around a group of snotty classmates as they arrive at a museum and are taken inside to check out a Mexican folk and myths exhibit. The tour guide, Mary Beth, voiced by Christina Applegate, begins the tour by opening up The Book of Life. The book includes all the stories within the world, and out of all the stories, she picks one about two young men and a woman. The actual story begins (yeah, I know, it’s annoying) with the focus on three individuals, Manolo Sánchez, voiced by Diego Luna, Maria Posada, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and Joaquin Mondragon, voiced by Channing Tatum. It’s your basic love triangle story, but it’s only when two gods enter the story that things become interesting. One god is La Muerte, the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, voiced by Kate Del Castillo, and Xibalba, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, voiced by the always awesome Ron Pearlman. The two gods make a deal as to who will win the heart of Maria. Of course, Xibalba tricks Manolo and ends up getting him killed to win the bet. Manolo then ends up in the Land of the Remembered, and it is up to him, with the help of his ancestors, to get back to the world of the living.

Now that I got that out of the way, what’s good about the film? First off, it’s very unique-looking, due to the director Jorge Gutiérrez’s art style. I adore the wooden puppet character design, the really vibrant colors, and just how well the art style transfers well to 3D character models. The animation is also so expressive and smooth. It’s obvious that either the studio got more of a budget, or better talent due to how amazing it looks compared to their first big film, Free Birds. I also love the fact that it does tackle themes of death and losing a loved one, being yourself, and for Manolo’s case, finding an alternate solution that does not use violence. I also like a lot of the characters, like Manolo, the two Gods, Manolo’s family, and even the Candle Maker character was not as annoying as I thought he would be alongside Manolo’s musical friends. The voice cast was great. While they do have individuals like Ron Pearlman and Channing Tatum, the rest of the cast is Hispanic. Granted, seeing Ice Cube, was a tad off-putting at first, and I do think they could have gotten a Hispanic actor instead of him, but he did a great job as the Candle Maker. While the music is somewhat forgettable, it fits in better than the 900 different pop songs that are forced into Strange Magic. There are some original songs, and they are fine.

It’s all the more of a shame that with all the great stuff The Book of Life does, that the story and some of the characters have a lot of problems. Like Hotel Transylvania, the story has too many clichés that should be dead or done better/differently. You have the two guys fighting over a girl, the modern-day audience being told of the story, the liar revealed, the secondary villain since the God of Death is not enough, modern talk in a time in the past, modern songs, and a female character that has some personality, but not a whole lot. I love this movie, but I don’t want to ignore my criticisms toward it. I also don’t care for how the ending plays out. Basically, this whole film that has death as a focus on the story, plays it off like an episode of Dragon Ball Z, where in the end, death is like a mosquito bite. And before you ask, I did try and think of other anime that gave the middle finger to death, but couldn’t since, well, it’s Dragon Ball Z. My biggest complaint about the film is the modern-day school kid group element. They really didn’t need to be there, and they really brought me out of the immersion of the film by popping in from time to time. Heck, the whole museum set-up was interesting, but if it was just the museum tour guide and the janitor, it would have been so much better.

I might have criticized this film a lot since this was released in 2014, and by now, we should know certain tropes should die off, but The Book of Life was and still is a great movie. Its negative aspects don’t outweigh the positive elements. I would definitely recommend seeing this film, since it’s unique in a lot of areas, like being the first mainstream Hispanic fairytale, and having that beautiful colorful puppet art style. Well, we might have been on a positive streak, but depending on what you all voted for, we might have to dip right back into the infamous negativity. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Rating: Go See It!

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