Film Review: The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life is an animated tale of bravery, loyalty and love, set in Mexico and utilising the imagery and folklore of The Day of the Dead. The animation is great, reminiscent of Tim Burton, with the characters formed by carved wooden toys. But while the film is lovely, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The story starts in a museum, where a tour guide relays tales from the book of life to schoolchildren. She tells the children about three young friends – Maria, Manolo and Joaquín – and the two rulers of the spirit worlds, La Muerte of The Land of the Remembered and Xibalba of the Land of the Forgotten. La Muerte and Xibalba make a wager, betting over who will win Maria’s heart in marriage – Manolo or Joaquin. The loser of the wager will rule The Land of the Forgotten and will cease to meddle in the lives of the living.

The young friends are inseparable, until Maria’s father sends her to Europe to become a lady. Manolo and Joaquin are heartbroken, both vowing never to forget her and to win her heart when she returns. The boys remain in the village, and as they grow older they each try to meet the expectations of their fathers’ and be brave. Manolo is a gifted bull fighter and his father is training him for the ring, despite Manolo’s preference for music. Joaquin has The Medal of Everlasting Life, a secret gift from the meddling Xibalba, and is the town hero.

Many years later, the boys are now men and Maria is returned to the village. Manolo and Joaquin are set to try to win her heart, Xibalba and La Muerte watching on to see which of their champions will win them the bet. When he sees that Manolo is winning Maria’s heart Xibalba tricks him into death, and so begins Manolo’s adventures in the spirit worlds. In the land of the living, the village is under threat from a gang of bandits and Joaquin is the only one who can help.

While The Book of Life is a sweet film, and quite funny in parts, it is also a bit disappointing. The story is really busy, moving back and forth from the museum, to the village, and the various underworlds, and might be difficult for a younger audience to follow. It is also quite heavy on with the messages of true love, bravery and believing in one’s self. The animation itself is beautifully styled and the soundtrack is lots of fun, director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro capturing the Mexican influence and culture.

Such high standards are set for animation films now, thanks to Pixar and Disney, but also to the Japanese Studio Ghibli. This film falls short of those standards. There is nothing essentially wrong with The Book of Life – although 3D is possibly unnecessary. But it simply doesn’t stack up against films like Finding Nemo, Up or Spirited Away.

The Book of Life is in Australian cinemas from 2 April through 20th Century Fox.

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