I can say this much for Reel FX’s second full-length feature animated film: it’s got spunk. Unfortunately, it takes more than that to make a great movie. That’s not to say that The Book of Life is a complete waste of time—the unique style of character and set design along with the heartfelt music and whimsical tone of the film kept me entertained throughout the 95 minutes. As far as repeated viewings and overall longevity of the film in animation history—for me, I can’t see myself ever longing to open this book again.
Based on the generally positive reviews the film has received so far, I seem to be in the minority with my critique of the sophomore attempt by this up-and-coming animation studio. Give them a break, Jess! Geez! They’re competing with Disney and DreamWorks, here! It’s totally true that ReelFX should be proud of themselves because this is a beautiful film in many ways and it is a much better movie—in my opinion—than their first film, Free Birds. I just did not find myself moved by or connected to any of the characters, including our hero, Manolo. I also found myself scoffing at the predictability of the plot, even for an animated film.
We start by hearing from our narrator (Christina Applegate) that the story is contained in a mysterious, ancient book called, “The Book of Life.” She is reading to students on a field trip on November 2nd, the Day of the Dead in Mexican tradition. The chapter she reads follows the lives of three young children, Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Maria (Zoe Saldana). The two guardians of the afterlife, former lovers, make a wager on which boy Maria will end up marrying. The kinder, gentler, guitar-playing Manolo is the obvious hero, while Joaquin is shown to be greedy and too aggressive. The good guardian, La Muerte, favors Manolo and thus we can easily predict 90% of the rest of the plot.
The bad guardian cheats to get his prospect to win Maria’s hand, even to the point of causing the early death of Manolo. Manolo descends to the bright, exciting afterlife, but he is distressed because he wants to return to Maria. However, we never really worry for a second that it won’t work out for our hero, which is a major problem with the film. Even when they try to push that Maria’s town is going to perish soon and so Manolo and all the others who are “living” in the afterlife of “the remembered” will disappear into the scary afterlife of “the forgotten,” it just isn’t enough to actually get the adrenaline going. In such a whimsical film, some more balance with reality has to be set in for empathetic emotions to develop. We just think, “oh, don’t worry! Something else totally crazy is just going to happen!” And it does!
Another downside of the film was regurgitated tropes of animation along with downright rip-offs. Maria is supposed to be an evolved woman, modern and independent—she doesn’t want to kill animals, she studied fencing and kung fu—yet she is designed as a stick stomach with two big spheres on each end. She’s also incredibly flat as a character, with no believable romance between her and Monalo or Joaquin. I would have liked to see more of a struggle for her choosing between her two best friends than the manufactured one of her wanting to save her town. The acting was just not there. Also, the evil afterlife guardian’s disguise is so reminiscent of Jafar, it was distracting for me. There are several other uncanny resemblances to Aladdin, not the least of which was the journey to the “Cave of Souls,” which is a dead ringer for the Cave of Wonders, to the point that I expected the cave to actually say, “only one may enter here: one whose worth lies far within—a diamond in the rough.” Which, it basically did say. Plus, the “candle maker” is basically the genie. At the end of the film, the appearance of characters from the afterlife are so much like the end of LOTR: ROTK, I actually lol’d.
On the brighter side, I found some of the quotes in the film to be very funny, including, “One thing we know for certain: Mexico is the center of the universe,” and also, “Kids today, with their long hair and no killing stuff.” I also particularly enjoyed the distinct noise Maria’s pet pig makes and I genuinely appreciate the attention given to what I think is a great holiday that we should adopt in America, Dia de los Muertos. I was not a fan of the design of Manolo or Joaquin as adults. It could just be my perpetual infatuation with coming-of-age teenage stories, but I think at least Manolo would have been better suited to be a bit younger looking and smaller.
Overall, I give the film 2.5 out of 5 stars and would say, go see it once just to experience a colorful, whimsical world created by a sure competitor in the future of animation.