Film Review: “The Book of Life”

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Katya’s back with another review, this time of a film she oh so loved. 

I heard about “The Book of Life” on a top ten on Phoenix Magazine, and after seeing it, I want to work my way through every single film on that list. This is solid stuff.

Guillermo Del Toro is one of those film directors I don’t necessarily seek out, but when I see their stuff, I’m instantly wowed. Sometimes it needs a little to sink in (“Pacific Rim”, largely due to Sarah Rees Brennan’s hilarious blow-by-blow,) sometimes it hits me so hard, I go right on the other end and hate it (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” what even the fuck?) “The Book of Life” is a delight to watch – gorgeous concept art, beautiful animation, and the music compliments it perfectly. Watching it, I felt like a little kid again – the sort of exuberant joy and sense of wonder you only get to experience before self-consciousness kicks in. (It might have helped that the theatre was full of kids. It’s somehow easier to cry if the people sitting around you are doing it too.)

Book of Life

The movie starts with a group of troubled schoolkids getting a special tour of a museum. Their guide shows them a special book – the Book of Life – which contains all the stories in the world. She uses the book to tell the kids the story of Maria, Manolo and Joaquin – three childhood friends that become the pawns of a cosmic bet between the two rulers of the Underworld. La Muerte, mistress of the Land of the Remembered, wagers that kind-hearted Manolo will marry Maria, while Xibalba, the master of the Land of the Forgotten, places his bet on the brave Joaquin. (Personally, I think someone should have placed their bet on Maria kicking both of them in the butt, they would have had a great chance of winning.) If Xibalba wins, he would switch realms with La Muerte. If he loses, he promises to stop interfering in the affairs of men. Naturally, Xibalba is pretty intent on winning, even if it means breaking the rules.

“The Book of Life” has a whole host of characters, but it’s mainly Manolo’s story – he’s torn between being an excellent bullfighter (and this making his family proud,) and his natural instincts that this is an inhumane sport and that the bulls should not be killed. He thus has to find the courage to be himself in a world that has a very narrow definition of masculinity and accomplishment. In the eyes of his family (and most of the village) Manolo’s failure to kill the bull is a sign of weakness, and *gasp* unmanliness. Poor Maria is the only one who agrees with him.

This, of course, is delivered in the way you would expect from a kids’ movie – with a lot of bombast and songs and epic explosions of colour and action. Which, honestly, I like a lot – not just because the aesthetic is pleasing to me (and there are plenty of little in-jokes thrown in, specifically for the adults in the audience) but also because it’s part of an ongoing trend. We had Dreamworks breaking in the ground for unconventional-looking main characters (“Shrek”), we had a Disney movie about a mother-daughter relationship that got the princess in the line-up (“Brave,”) we had another Disney movie about the relationship between two sisters, growing up and showing vulnerability, which broke both the bank and the Internet (“Frozen”) and now we have a movie that tells us you don’t have to be violent to be a good man. I am very pleased at this development.

(Sure, Manolo fights, and Maria is being pushed really hard as a Strong Independent Woman TM, but I’m weird. I like ladies that do kung-fu and fencing and are sassy and want to marry a kind-hearted guy.)

(Coincidentally, I think this movie would make an awesome drinking game.)

(Also, Channing Tatum needs to lend his voice to more animated characters. There are not enough actors who can holler “JOAQUIN!” with so much gusto. Excellent work, man, keep this up.)

What else can I say? If this plays near you, do check it out. Yes, even with the little kids in the theatre. Especially with the little kids in the theatre.

We all need to lose the self-consciousness for a little while.

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