The Book of Life

book of life 2.jpg
UK Release Date 24th October 2014
Director Jorge R. Gutierrez
Starring Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana
Runtime 95 Minutes
Certificate U
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 27th October 2014

It's getting to that time of year, the clocks have changed and suddenly every convenience store is filled with orange tinged goodies. Which can only mean one thing, scary movies are out in force at the multiplex. We like scary movies so a nice Saturday hangover trip to be terrified by The Babadook seemed like an absolute no brainer. However, we are not yet professional critics (surprising, I know) and sometimes, certain external forces bewitch us and we get somewhat sidetracked.....

And so The Babadook must wait and I found myself in a screening of writer / director Jorge R. Gutierrez's debut feature The Book of Life. Prominently listing Guillermo del Toro as producer and sporting some incredible looking visuals, I wasn't entirely disappointed by this turn of events.

Weaving more Mexican folklore into one tale than anyone has any right to imagine, the movie tells the tale of two best friends locked in a life long competition for the hand of the same girl. Diego Luna's Manolo is a sensitive soul, trapped in a family of courageous bullfighters but blighted by his conscience and his desire only to play beautiful music. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) on the other hand is a soldier, forever in the shadow of his heroic father. Their love, Maria (Zoe Saldana) is sent away to boarding school when they are kids and returns to town on the day that Manolo is to prove himself in the bullring.

Sat aside from the central triumvirate and looking down upon mankind are the mischievous pair of Xibalba (Ron Pearlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo). Xibalba being the disaffected god of the Forgotten (my Mexican folklore is a little hazy so forgive me if I don't get this entirely correct), charged with administering the wasteland of souls who are no long remembered back on earth. La Muerte has a better time of it, overseeing the land of the Remembered, which comes alive with carnival every year on the Day of the Dead. The pair are inveterate gamblers though and despite Xibalba's less than honest ways, La Muerte enters into a bet with him over the future husband of Maria. She backs the sensitive one, he goes for the manly one. And of course, he cheats by endowing Joaquin with a special medal which makes him invulnerable to injury....

The most obvious and most striking element of Gutierrez's movie is the wonderfully exuberant visuals that fill every frame. I watched this in 2D and given the vast colour palette on show here, I would suggest that is the best way to view this. Aside from the occasional gimmicky shot, I don't think this is really a movie that cries out for 3D. Every detail of the characters is rendered in superb, wooden marionette style. Check out Xibalba's brilliant red skull eyeballs, the detail on display is endless and is matched by the sheer enthusiasm of the animation. Every character's actions are exaggerated, infusing every frame with a manic energy. To be honest, there is so much crammed in here, you will struggle to take it all in, probably especially so for younger viewers.

Starting with a school trip, presumably in modern day USA, featuring some obnoxious school kids being taught the ways of the centre of the Universe (a wonderfully moustachioed Mexico) we are whizzed into the pages of a history book, the contrast between the rounded animation of the 'real' world and the wooden characters in the book is well played. Gutierrez keeps things moving at a pace that should keep time with even the most fervent imagination for the most part, though the quest is a little while in arriving and doesn't really amount to a huge deal when it does occur. 

Sadly, the script doesn't quite keep up with the visuals though. There seems endless room for entertaining banter, especially between the two gods but the script ploughs an entirely straight furrow, relying more on physical humour to get by. Which isn't to say the movie isn't funny, there are some amusing moments here and everyone enjoys an out of proportion pig sidekick, it's just that with a little more devil about it (which would seem fitting, given the underworld setting), there could have been a lot more here for the adults. Likewise, the music is a little frustrating. For every genius Mexican themed cover (Radiohead's Creep gets a hilarious rendition), there is a Disney wannabe anthem which frankly seems out of place in this world.

The characters suffer similarly with a lack of internal spark that is, to be fair, compensated for by their visual flair. Maria is nicely spunky, despite being mostly sidelined by the two boys but the boys themselves aren't the most interesting of people and Maria's choice never really seems in any doubt. The two gods are great value but again, the majority of this is found in the visual inventiveness of the animation, their character arc could have been made far more interesting. Of the remaining cast of characters, many splendid moustaches are displayed but personality wise, there isn't a huge amount on show.

I'll close by admitting that whilst I certainly enjoyed The Book of Life, it is well worth seeing for its joyously inventive visuals alone, I have to admit that a rather straight laced script and some fairly bland characterisations left me pining for more darkness beneath the energetic light.

Check out the trailer here.

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