Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Releasing this week on Blu ray & DVD:
THE BOOK OF LIFE
(Dir. Jorge Gutierrez, 2014) *
This Mexico-set CG-animated musical comedy adventure is a vast improvement over the animation studio Reel FX’s first feature, last year’s FREE BIRDS.
While that unfunny fiasco was about time-traveling turkeys, THE BOOK OF LIFE, the directorial debut of long-time television animator Jorge Gutierrez, has a lot more ambition by way of a fantastical storyline that pays vividly colorful respect to Mexican folklore. That Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH, PACIFIC RIM) is one of the film’s producers gives it a bit of cinematic gravitas as well.
Unfortunately, it’s often clunky and cluttered, with hard-to-care-about experiences and loads of jokes that were met by silence at the screening I attended – one packed with families with kids.
The characters are accurately described as wooden; through the framing device of a museum tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling the film’s tale to a group of snotty school children, the major players are represented by handcrafted wooden figures that come to life as marionettes without strings.
Via Applegate’s narration, we are taken to a Mexican landscape sometime in the unspecified past on the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, and introduced to a love triangle in which two young suitors – the sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna) and the cocky warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum, in his first animated feature) – compete for the hand of the beautiful, free-spirited Maria (Zoe Saldana).
Watching from above, the squabbling husband-and-wife deities, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a high-stakes wager on which suitor will marry Maria.
Manolo’s father (Hector Elizondo) wants him to carry on the family’s bullfighting tradition, but Manolo wants to be a musician. This gives the film the peg for both its transparent “follow your dreams” moral and its musical numbers. Annoyingly interjected into the action is a bunch of Latin-tinged American pop songs, including Rod Stewart’s “If You Think I’m Sexy,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and even Radiohead’s “Creep.”
There are some decent original songs written by Oscar-winning composers Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla and performed by Luna and Saldana. One entitled “I Love You Too Much” is catchy enough to be a hit. (It’s also a plus that they don’t make Tatum sing.)
Of course, every animated movie aimed at kids has to be in 3-D these days, and this one has more elements that can be enhanced by the format than most – like a sequence involving Manolo running through a mega maze before speeding boulders crash down the corridors and crush him. But it made very little difference otherwise.
The presence of Ice Cube as a cuddly, goofy ancient god called “The Candlemaker” is irksome. The rapper/actor’s performance is “on,” but it seems a cynical piece of casting designed to up the hipness factor. Still, he drew some genuine laughs.
Despite the fact that a character dies, parents won’t have to worry about the film being dark or disturbing enough to give children nightmares. But on the flip side, THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t magical or memorable enough to really resonate later, either.
* This review originally appeared in the October 16th, 2014 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.