HUGGGGE Spoilers! Readers beware!
If you would consider, please drop everything and go see The Book of Life.
I’m not going to be too preachy the rest of the review, but it’s a POC-centric narrative using Mexico’s celebratory Day of the Dead as its chief background. Meaning it physically stands out from a sea of all-white casts and that alone has merits, but its narrative and themes tread familiar, relatable grounds, ensuring it’s accessibility to anyone willing to partake in this gem.
A group of trouble making students is sent to a routine class trip to the local museum. A saintly tour guide leads them to a secret sector of the building hosting a vivid display dedicated to the grand tradition: The Day of the Dead. There she regales in an epic tale of 1920s era Mexico, in the town of San Angel. Two Gods of the Dead, the achingly beautiful La Muerte and her lover Xibalba decide to wage a bet when the latter desires to rule Muerte’s Land of the Remembered over his dank and depressing Land of the Forgotten. They will pit two mortal boys to win the heart of their childhood friend, each God taking the side of one boy. They are Manolo Sánchez, a child from a long and proud line of hot-blooded bullfighters; Joaquín, son of a noble warrior who died protecting his home; and the spirited María, a girl who continuously defines her restricted role based solely on her gender. The Book of Life
isn’t particularly bold with its tale; love triangles, grand adventures, and a villain constantly played up until his untimely reveal are weaved into a neat little basket. Its core theme is a “Be Yourself” lesson, for Pete’s sake. It also has this amusingly weird running pattern of children living under their father’s shadow or having the patriarch figure butt into their lives despite their wishes. Manolo desires to be a musician in spite of his father’s wish to live up to the Sánchez name and become a bullfighter. Forever under his father’s shadow, Joaquin vows to live up to his legacy as a famed soldier, but feels he can only accomplish this if he only looks out for himself. And María is frustrated at her father and the town’s dated ideals of how a proper woman should behave. It's an ageless tale to be sure and by all accounts, it plays it largely straight. But The Book of Life
is exceptional for what it DOESN'T do.
The central motivation for the movie centers on love, but its characters never succumb to shallow romances and cheap montages. The film doesn't reduce it's core "two men fighting over one girl" trope into its barest sum; it's about three characters with their own personality and dilemmas that are just as entangled over romantic woes. In ninety minutes, the movie gracefully explores Manolo, Joaquin, and María's story, enabling them as dimensional, individual characters.
Manolo’s tale is the closest to playing the narrative straight, but his journey opens up a few doors I don’t usually see in “Be Yourself” stories. He doesn't want to be a bullfighter despite a talent for it, but he isn't hesitate to use the skills he's learned to get out of a physical jam. At times, it saves his life. This doesn't betray Manolo's goals and it's his poignant musical score that tames the bulls his family has killed over generations. He literally soothes the savage beast. His mother Carmen is dead at the start of the film in that whole "too good for the earth" sort of deal, living room for his flawed father to roughhouse his son into a situation Carmen would not have approved of. Usually dead mothers never factor into the story outside of grief remembrance from the central protagonists and sometimes as a passive guidance at a crucial moment. Carmen one-ups the role she's stuck with by taking a more active involvement in her son's life. Because The Book of Life
deals with the afterlife, she is free to journey alongside her son's mission and lend support. The same holds true of the rest of the Sánchez family tree. I like how the movie liberally takes the concept of death and treats it almost like an afterthought, a view that would appropriately fit with the Day of the Dead. Manolo and María's hook up is predictably inevitable, but the film charmingly ensures believability behind the why. The two are equals; Manolo never denounces who María is and respects her decisions. This is best evident in the battle with Chakal where the two fight side-by-side. Even his woos come off genuine and sweet with nary a sinister, entitled motive in sight.
Manolo is a consistently pure figure, leaving his rival Joaquin to take the opposite approach, but they share the same coin. Like Manolo, he has daddy issues, but takes them in crasser, selfish decisions. Joaquin is a showboat and compensates in his egotistical glory. While Manolo willingly lends bread to an old lady, Joaquin asks for something in return to relinquish his'. He's incapable of empathy and eagerly blames Manolo without seeing reason or flirt with María in spite of her true feelings. He easily sets himself up as a rogue antagonist (a terrible, terrible
plot device to use in a love triangle, BTW), but eventually proves he's not the hoity-toity doof he makes himself out to be. Manolo's death opens up a wave of feelings he hasn't really come to terms before: caring for someone other than himself. The grief causes him regret and in an admirable move, he hesitates to marry María despite everyone pushing him to. He understands his boisterous nature produced did more harm than good because he so badly wanted to live up to his father's legacy. There is sympathy to his motives and it works because the film ensured he is a good person from the start in spite of his flaws. He casts off the invulnerable-granting medal that Xibalba gave him (secretly so he could win the bet) and symbolically loses an eye, a cue that he will be honorable from here on out.
A sad, routine prominence of a love triangle between two men and a woman is that the latter is often nothing but a prize; a damsel in one distressed package for them to fight over. María rarely fits the description. She is the object of love to two men, but Manolo sees her as a person and the film does the same. María is a feisty woman with considerable physical skills and determination without sacrificing her feminine grace. She's kidnapped at one point, but it barely lasts a minute before she is freed and joins the battle with her own resourcefulness. The sexism she encounters is a bit on-the-nose, but necessary in the decade she lived in and never preachy. I like how they treated María's decisions when it comes to her pick of men; she chose Manolo because he treats her like an individual instead of a bargain her own father pulled in order to get Joaquin to fight Chakal.
Furthermore, the focus of love extends to the instigators of this whole event. The Gods La Muerte and Xibalba are madly in love in spite of their estranged nature and the latter does whatever he can to impress La Muerte, even if he has to resort to cheating (though the movie implies deception is standard in his bag of tricks.) Lu Muerte may have Xibalba’s wings pinned, but like our heroic couple, they are an equal set, able to chide and praise each other. I am especially impressed with Xibalba; his ghastly appearance (and a face that oddly resembles My Little Pony’s Discord) would easily put him in villain territory, but he is a multifaceted character who's amoral and mischievous than genuinely malicious. He takes his loss with grace and eventually guides our hero to victory. Also La Muerte has a kickass design. She is absolutely stunning! I've seen action figures of The Book of Life cast around, but is there one for her? Because I would love to own one.
The point I’m trying to make is that as much as love guides these characters, it’s not what encompass them as a whole. Each of them has their own personalities and problems that they must overcome.
I was also surprised the Land of the Remembered scenes weren't a major factor until the last act of the movie despite the trailer stating otherwise. Rest assure the afterlives are properly foreshadowed and festivities of the departed are a constant presence throughout the film. The Book of Life miraculously pulls certain quirks that a lesser film would not have been able to successfully employ. It’s frantic, but never obnoxiously so, giving it an energetic feel than sugar-infested nonsense lesser animated films mandatory relapse to. It knows when to slow down to emphasize the emotional moments. I cringed when Manolo started singing Radiohead’s “Creep”, fearing the rest of the pop songs they sing would be a detriment to the film, but the rest works leaving that particular scene the only real narmy moment of the whole movie. The rest of the score is given a Mexican, fiesta flavored makoeover that enriches the musical portion of the film. The animation largely dabbles with marionette designs for the central cast, but constantly pops in with flashy traditionally animated sequences and standard CGI for the museum-goers. It’s always coated in color and details are plentiful, but nothing dazzles more than The Land of the Remembered, a carnivalesque, rainbow world of endless fun and entertainment that makes dying a treat.
The Book of Life is really, really damn good. It’s a shame it isn’t making back the money it spent to create this film and its sadder knowing it took fourteen years for the creator to actually make the movie. Shun any naysayers who thinks a movie needs a white-centric cast and setting to reach an audience. I don't know much about Mexican culture and I certainly won't claim I do (and I hope this review doesn't offend anyone, feel free to correct me on anything, please), but it possesses a timeless tale that occasionally subverts narrative expectations. I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. Even if it fails in the box office, it’s still worth sitting down for. Mexico truly is the center of the world. AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE STARS
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