The majority of the films released by the major Hollywood studios are entirely too predictable. Many of their themes, messages, and motifs are far too "on the nose" for their own good. There are so many strong pieces of storytelling out there, although they're often difficult to find amongst all of the remakes, sequels, and prequels. Fortunately, 20th Century Fox is bringing a new animated feature to silver screens that are sure to entertain audiences of all ages titled The Book of Life. Given this year's rather poor representation of animated motion pictures, audiences will be left hoping for this one to deliver the goods that they have desired from the beginning of the year. The Book of Life is a pleasant surprise.
Manolo (Diego Luna) is a young man, who must face the expectations of his family, or decide to follow his heart for the girl he loves, Maria (Zoe Saldana). Powerful beings La Muerte (Kat del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) made a bet on whether Manolo, or his best childhood friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum) will marry the girl. Told from Manolo's perspective, he must face his greatest fears for the greater good of both his family, as well as Maria. A lot more is at stake than he could ever begin to realize.
Writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale introduce the main plot through a framework of a bunch of young misbehaved children on a field trip. The tour guide takes them to a secret part of the museum, as she discusses a story that she believes will fascinate them. Unfortunately, the entire framing device is absolutely unnecessary. It adds an extra amount of bulk that the film simply doesn't need, as it tries to be too much at once. Within the first twenty minutes or so, this comes off as being exhaustingly busy, although it slows down a little bit once it really gets into the bulk of the material. However, we do continue to return to this field trip periodically, pulling us out of Manolo's story. However, Manolo's story is a plot that we can really get on board with. The character is insanely likable, and the story plays with the themes of family, career-choices, love, and our ability to care for others. The Book of Life connects them in a way that truly makes for an interesting display of personal adventure, as our hero does what he can to satisfy his father, himself, and the love of his life.
As soon as Maria is introduced, she proves to be a more independent thinker, as she constantly plays mind games with both Manolo and Joaquin, as their love for her is no secret. This is a female character that young girls can look up to. She's well-educated, selfless, kind, but realizes that she doesn't necessarily need a man in order to be complete. She's quite impressive all by herself, especially after her expansive education in a vast number of arenas. Whether we're talking about animated or live action motion pictures, young girls rarely have such a role model that they can admire for such reasons. While the bet between La Muerte and Xibalba continues to unfold, we're presented with a rich amount of strong female roles, which prove to set this picture apart from most other films in this genre.
While this is surely an adventure picture, the screenplay also has a large amount of intended humor throughout its running time. There are actually a surprising amount of laughs to be had throughout The Book of Life. The majority of them come within the situational humor, rather than the bits within the dialogue, which is more directed towards children. This animated feature actually handles some rather mature themes expressed within the context of the Mexica holiday, Day of the Dead. Gutierrez and Langdale's dialogue can sometimes be reaching, but the themes and situations that are introduced most certainly handle the more mature dealings incredibly well. By the time that we reach the final act, The Book of Life has some hiccups in the form of a rather noticeable plot hole, although it still manages to pull itself back together with this highly-celebrated holiday. We once again return back to the framing device at the museum, which sticks out like a sore thumb. The picture would have felt much more focused if it simply told the story, rather than constantly being interrupted.
Regardless of your age, all audiences will be able to appreciate the feature's wonderful sense of animation. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. The Book of Life utilizes an extremely colorful palette filled with bright colors, which simply pop off of the screen in the most beautiful way possible. The character designs are wonderfully executed, as the humans are designed to be wooden figurines with impeccable movement, while La Muerte and Xibalba prove to have exquisite designs that truly bring them to life. People are sure to be drawn in by the recognizable covers of hit songs, which are recorded with precision. While the 3D occasionally adds an extra level of depth, the majority of the picture is hindered by the glasses darkening the screen. There are so many wonderful colors in this film, making it worthwhile to experience it in 2D without the nuisance of a darkened picture.
Going into The Book of Life with a relatively small amount of knowledge, I ended up rather enjoying it. The first twenty minutes or so are way too busy, but the film really takes off once it starts moving. We're introduced to a wonderful story placed within the context of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. Manolo is an intriguing role to follow, although Maria is sure to garner the attention, as young girls will appreciate the strong female role within the context of a love story told from a man's perspective. Meanwhile, the picture handles its more mature themes with elegance, especially with the feature's unique sense of direction that rarely seems to waver. The Book of Life is a fresh execution on a worthwhile story. Recommended.