“The Book of Life” has been a project I’ve been pulling for since I first heard Guillermo del Toro was attached to a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) project. The colors and beautiful philosophy behind the holiday have always felt like a great setting for storytellers, and del Toro’s history of fantastical visuals and his own personal love for the traditions set up all the right ingredients for a potentially amazing animated adventure.
But strangely, even with all the right elements in place, the trailers for “The Book of Life” made the movie look generic and even feel a bit lazy.
So which is it? A happy collision of all the right talent and material in one exploding ball of brilliance? Or a sluggish, straight-to-video candidate hoping to cash in on a holiday growing in cross-culture popularity?
Unfortunately and then again fortunately, the answer is neither. Here are three reasons you’ll almost love “The Book of Life.”
I would tell anyone to see this movie simply as a way of saying “thank you” to your retinas.
Visually, “The Book of Life” is a finely crafted love letter to the Mexican culture and its most popular autumn holiday. The depth and detail on display in each scene is gorgeous, and the film’s depiction of the goddess Santa Muerte is one that will fit nicely alongside that Jack Skellington collection you pull out every October.
Note though, this is an attribute that builds throughout the film. In fact, during the opening scenes you’ll wonder if you read this article correctly. But as the story picks up, and especially when our protagonist travels to the Land of the Remembered, you’ll feel like you’re experiencing sensory overload … in a good way.
Mexico is rarely celebrated in film the way its celebrated in “The Book of Life.” The sites, sounds and traditions are not only highlighted throughout the story, they are the very reason the story exists in the first place.
But even with the movie’s confidence in its identity, there’s nothing exclusive about the experience. In fact, one of the film’s glaring missteps belongs to director Jorge R. Gutierrez’s decision not to cut a wildly unnecessary subplot that further explains the culture to the audience.
If you find yourself thinking at any point, “This just feels like a really expensive episode of Veggie Tales,” it’s because the story has stepped back into said subplot. Hopefully, a future director’s cut of the movie will be released that’s actually shorter than the theatrical version.
It’s something new
There’s no question that “The Book of Life” plays to the familiar beats of most children’s stories. You’ll know, as a parent, when good things are coming and bad things and what kind of ending to expect, and that’s one of the reasons you won’t be able to give your heart to this movie.
However, as far as these familiar plot lines go, this one is dressed up like nothing you’ve seen before: God’s wagering on lowly humans, partying like it’s 1999 in the underworld, Mumford and Sons remixes, bull fights and endless mustache jokes.
To the kids, everything about this movie will feel new and different. To the parents, if you have to endure another beat-for-beat animated movie, at least the frill here will keep your interest.
There’s a lot to like when it comes to “The Book of Life,” and maybe that’s why its shortcuts are so painful. The constant breaks in the story to pat the audience on the head and explain what’s going on is a huge distraction, and the especially lazy comedy and story resolutions might make you wonder if this was ultimately rushed to get a release date before Pixar’s upcoming Dia de los Muertos project.
Still, if you’re looking for a family film to enjoy this weekend, the little ones in your life will be entertained and your eyeballs will be happy even if your brain gets a bit restless.
(Travis Poppleton has been covering movie news, film reviews and live events and co-hosts the FlixJunkies podcast. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)