Monday, October 27, 2014

The Book of Life Review

Can you smell it? That's the smell of Halloween in the air! It's that one time of the year where we can celebrate everything macabre and dark with no repercussions to it at all! We can eat candy, scare people, and celebrate the darkest day of the year with glee. However, not all holidays surrounding death are meant to be dark and grim. In actuality, some holidays about death have a positive and joyous vibe to them. Case in point, Dia de Los Muertoes, or the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. If you're ever interested in learning about that holiday, then I say you should probably give The Book of Life  a watch.

There are three planes of existence in the world as we know it. We have the land of the living, where living beings live, the land of the remembered, where souls that are remembered by the living go to to party in the afterlife, and the land of the forgotten, where the souls that are no longer remembered by the living go. The land of the remembered is guarded by La Muerte, the beautiful goddess, while the land of the forgotten is guarded by Xibalba, the deceitful god. Both of these gods are in love with each other, but Xibalba wants to rule the land of the remembered. So he strikes a bargain with La Muerte. He bets that a young boy named Juaquin will grow up to marry Maria, a beautiful woman in the small town of San Angel, while La Muerte bets that Manolo, a young bullfighter that loves music, will marry her instead. What follows is a love story with divine intervention, trickery, remembrance of the dead, and Manolo overcoming great odds for the woman he loves.

There is literally a ton of things to talk about with this movie, but I have no idea where to start. I guess I can start off by saying that the story is absolutely filled to the brim with charm and great characterization. You can tell that this movie was a clear passion project by its director Guillermo del Toro and was made to showcase the glory of Mexican culture. Everything about this movie has so much heart and love for its homeland and is brimming with pride whenever the characters talk about Mexico or Mexican traditions.

This is just concept art, but HOT DAMN this movie is gorgeous
I love the fact that none of the characters are even portrayed as outright villains either. You might believe in the beginning that Juaquin will eventually become a villain in the same vein as Gaston or that Xibalba is a heartless villain, but that isn't the case. Both of these characters have greater depths and connection to others behind them. Even though Juaquin wants to marry Maria, he's still great friends with Manolo and will do anything to help his friend. Even Xibalba is not a 2D mustache twirling villain. He loves La Muerte and they act like an old married couple. They'll bicker and argue, but they both still care about each other and have fun.

Manolo and Maria on the other hand aren't as well rounded, but they're still fun to be around. They're not as dynamic as the other characters, instead falling into basic character tropes. Manolo is the man who is forced to fight because of his father, but wants to be a musician instead, while Maria is a self serving character that doesn't need any man. Both of those characters I've seen a ton of and besides the heavily Mexican influence, there's nothing that really defines them as people.

Speaking of Mexico, it is extremely rare that we get a movie that dedicates all of its culture and themes to Mexican traditions. The movie is legitimately centered around Dia de Los Muertos, which distinguishes it from most other animated movies released in the past decade. There's even an extremely moving a beautiful scene early on that explains the meaning behind Dia de Los Muertos, explaining that no matter what, our deceased relatives are always with us and watching over us as long as we are thinking of them. The Book of Life takes those holidays and meanings and imbues them with all of the love and passion to accurately convey just how important this holiday is for those who celebrate it.

If the themes and subjects are unlike anything else in recent years, the animation is unlike anything I've ever seen period. To say the animation is sublime is an understatement. This is the best kids movie I've ever seen in either 2D or 3D. This looks better than Disney AND Pixar. Every frame of this movie is bursting with life and has incredibly painstaking detail poured into every set and every scene. The best way I can describe the aesthetic is if you take classic claymation movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and give it a Mexican flare and turn it in CGI. That's not a knock against the movie mind you, because everything, and I mean everything about this movie is a marvel to behold.

HOT DAMN these designs are great
The designs of every character look incredible as well... for the most part. In particular, the designs of the Gods La Muerte and Xibalba are some of the best designs I've ever seen for mythical figures, and the dead souls have a lot of great flare and charisma poured into their designs. Dead souls have skeletal designs all throughout their body and they look beautiful. Humans don't look nearly as good, but they have a much more hand carved looked to them as if they're wooden puppets. It's a different kind of charm to them. Side characters though don't have really good designs. A ton of side characters just look really flat and two dimensional and completely malformed. There are four comic relief guards that are the worst offenders, with noses that are completely misshapen and starts above their eyes. It just looks really jarring because their designs are so unsightly.

Then you have the soundtrack of this movie, which combines old and new songs into a Hispanic influenced jamboree. When you hear Elvis songs mixed with Biz Markie and Ennio Morricone, you get a soundtrack that is always lively and is a great treat to listen to.

However, this movie is not without faults. Besides our main characters being a bit on the bland side, the editing on this movie is odd to say the least. I know I don't usually talk about technical aspects like editing, but here it needs to be mentioned. It felt like there were scenes and moments that were cut from this movie to have it fit a 90 minute run time. Scenes seemed rush and look like they're missing major parts to it while other scenes seem to graze over important plot points. Hell, even big scenes that were teased in the trailers, like the land of the remembered, are only in the movie for about five minutes before they're swiftly forgotten. I feel there's an uncut version of this movie somewhere on the cutting room floor that I want to see, because if this movie has just a few extra minutes to give it some air and atmosphere, then this could be a near flawless movie.

HOT DAMN this animation!
I do want to make it clear though that the one thing this movie has going for it is heart and compassion. Over every other movie I've seen this year, this movie had the most care poured into it. So much care and respect was put into representing the culture of this movie and what Dia de Los Muertos means to people. It isn't just a holiday to celebrate the dead like Halloween is, but rather, a holiday to remember loved ones that have passed on. This movie doesn't try to obfuscate the idea of death in a kids movie, but instead approaches it in a way that both adults and kids can relate to. Death may come to us all, but no matter what, we'll carry the memories of those that have passed on and they will always be with us. As long as we care about them and remember what they were like, then there's no need to fear death. The dead will still be watching over us and protecting us at all times, making sure that we know they are watching us.

That is what The Book of Life is about. It's about telling kids that they shouldn't be afraid of death. Not only that, but it does it in such a way that I'm sure will keep kids entertained. The art style will keep them focused, the animation will entrance them, the world will amaze them, and the characters will make them laugh. That's what the hallmarks of a great kids movie is, and that is exactly what The Book of Life is: a great kids movie.


Oh, and Grandma was a badass in this movie. Just an fyi.

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