By all accounts, this hasn’t been a standout year for animation aimed at younger viewers. Even the most successful and acclaimed example, The LEGO Movie, was, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, more popular with older audiences with many children being reportedly quite bored amidst all the post-modern gags and clever, subversive humor. Many are still waiting for this year’s Frozen, could The Book of Life be it? It’s certainly quick to throw its wooden, over-sized sombrero into the ring.
Set in the centre of the universe, Mexico, The Book of Life tells the very Greek-myth-esque story of three mortals, a love triangle and a couple powerful gods placing bets on the outcomes of the mortal’s lives. (There’s also a framing device but it’s hardly worth mentioning as it only seems to exist to justify the marionette-aesthetic and to occasionally make sure younger viewers are still paying attention.) La Muerte (Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman) are the rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, respectively. Xibalba is tired of ruling over a wasteland and wants to swap with La Muerte who refuses, that is until he puts forward a wager based on three children they’re watching during the annual Day of the Dead celebration.
Manolo (Luna), Maria (Saldana) and Joaquin (Tatum) are childhood friends, living in the shadows of their parents’ expectations and legacies. Both boys harbour feelings for Maria so the two deities place bets on who will end up marrying her. When, years later, Maria returns to their small town, both men begin to vie for her affections and in the process drift apart as friends. Maria meanwhile continues to insist that she can make her own decisions and their predictable romantic ploys aren’t going to sway her. Manolo is an acclaimed bull fighter but longs to be a singer while Joaquin has become the town’s foremost hero (thanks to a medal Xibalba secretly gave him in an attempt to improve his odds with the bet, which makes Joaquin invulnerable). Fearing an attack on the town that only Joaquin could defend against, the head of the town’s defence force, Maria’s father, encourages her to marry Joaquin so that he’ll have a reason to stay, rather than continuing to tour the country being heroic. Suffice to say, complications arise, loyalties are tested, Xibalba tries to cheat further and it all comes to down to a big battle as it inevitably must.
It becomes evident very early on that The Book of Life is desperately trying to stand out. Its aesthetic is undeniably charming and quite watchable. The overall structure of the story takes some nice little twists which shake things up enough to where even the incredibly well-trodden path which this film walks on, feels fresh enough. And, while no Frozen, there is a legitimate attempt here to rise the above the usual gender issues with these types of stories. So why does it all feel so ordinary? Don’t misunderstand, there’s wrong with it, it’s perfectly fine. It just feels like it should amount to more than ‘perfectly fine’.
Unfortunately, the film carries a lot of the hallmarks of a lazier, production-line animated feature. For one; stunt casting galore. Would you be surprised that Danny Trejo is in this and spends most of his time making arthritis jokes? Or Ice Cube, who’s playing one of the most insufferable onscreen characters in quite some time, that exists solely so that the film can cut back to him while he over-exaggeratedly exclaims ‘say whaaat?!’ or something to that effect. It’s not only annoying; it actually feels out of place. Additionally, the soundtrack is filled with covers of pop songs from the last few years which don’t really serve any purpose other than typical, synergistic, box-ticking by the accountants. (Although they do use Ecstasy of Gold at one point, so they get some kudos for that.)
It all just feels so perfunctory and hollow, as if these are just the things you’re expected to do when making a big-release animated movie. It’s a pity because there’s a lot to like in the rest of the film. For example, the big action scenes are a visual delight and very videogame-y (in a good way) in their construction. Additionally, some of the (non-Ice Cube related) humour is genuinely funny, especially those little wooden pigs who may be this year’s Minions. And while it goes through very familiar themes of living your life how you want to, rather than how your parents want you to etc., it at least does so in a reasonably novel way.
As for the feminist stance the film is trying to take; the message is shouted loud enough and frequently enough that it begins to feel oddly token. Especially given that, for all Maria’s talk of making her own decisions (which actually leads to at least one really interesting character moment), the plot ultimately doesn’t give her much in the way of agency. While it may not be as interesting as Frozen’s deconstructions and subversions of the genre, the message is delivered with enough lack of subtlety that the target audience can understand it and no philistines will be able to accuse anyone else of ‘reading too much into a kids film’.
What it comes down it in essence is; will young children like this movie? Yes. Is it actually aimed at them, rather than their parents? Yes. And given the lack of decent kids movies (actually *for* kids) of late, I suppose that’s probably enough. For everyone else, well… It doesn’t feel like much when the best you can say is that it’s visually nice, Ecstasy of Gold is in it and the tiny wooden pig that makes sheep noises is pretty funny. It could be noting that Ron Perlman is good fun in this too but his similarity to James Woods’ Hades will probably just make you wish you were watching Hercules.