“The Book of Life,” a Dia de los Muertos-themed film by rising-star studio Reel FX, could not have come to theaters at a more apt time. While the holiday itself, which starts Nov. 1, is only weeks away, it is also very relevant in another context—the state of animation throughout the past year. Despite having some of the most explosive successes in years with such films as “Frozen” and “The LEGO Movie,” the 2014 fiscal year has generally been stagnant for animation as a whole. Much of the blame rests on disappointments from major players such as DreamWorks and Pixar and layoffs infamously causing the latter to sit out for a year for the first time since 2006. In this respect, “The Book of Life” already presents itself as a much-needed oasis in a time of drought, not only for animation, but also for Latin-American-influenced entertainment, and its overarching themes of life, death, and rebirth only serve to further augment this.
Although marketed to children, the plot itself is more reminiscent of a classical epic, with two gods (Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman) vying for control of the Land of the Remembered, a candy-colored underworld filled with prosperous spirit and extravagant parties. They do this by making a wager, each choosing a young boy from the Mexican town of San Angel in hopes that their candidate will woo Maria (Zoë Saldana), a mutual childhood friend. The first part of the movie sets up the characters of the two boys, Joaquin and Manolo, in a relatively slow-paced way, one of the film’s few true downfalls. Up until the climax, the characters are for the most part stereotypes, with Manolo being the musician discouraged from pursuing his passion, Maria as something of a Disney princess mix between Belle’s studiousness and Jasmine’s feistiness and Joaquin rounding out the Beauty and the Beast comparisons by being a Gaston-esque warrior braggart. The same goes for the setting as well —while it is painstakingly presented as a realistic ethnic community, the expected cultural stereotypes still exist to some extent: bandits are a major part of the storyline and those hearing the stories make passing mentions about tacos and the like.
For the most part, however, many of the film’s flaws become resolved or forgotten in the second arc, in which characters attempt to escape death and both boys come to terms with who they are meant to be. This is as much a story of self-discovery as it is one of love or death, lending it the sort of depth seen in the animation greats. Behind its colorful and seemingly frivolous surface lies a world in which heroes hide their fears and can only win by overcoming them.
The film’s unique animation shines brighter in some ways than the plot itself, lending unusual character proportioning and a wide variety of colors to an idea that might have otherwise seemed rather macabre. While “The Book of Life” is macabre in some ways, it still manages to balance those elements with the right amount of whimsy and eccentricity as not to bog the viewers down into outright morbidity. Though such an ambitious film might have suffered in the wrong hands, director Jorge Gutierrez is skilled with creating endearingly odd cartoons with Latin influences, with his defunct superhero show El Tigre spurring an enviable fanbase for an animated debut. With this sort of imagination and wit, we will only see more of this rising star in the future.
Photo courtesy of io9.com