I'm really disappointed that I didn't like "The Book of Life" more; from the moment I first saw the trailer, the new animated film produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by first-timer Jorge R. Gutierrez, shot to the top of my Must See list. The Day of the Dead iconography seems like a natural fit for animation, but it isn't enough to make the film a memorable stand out.
There is a lot going on in "The Book of Life", so much that it is difficult to keep track of all of the characters and to enjoy the unique design and incredible look of the film and the characters.
A busload of students, the last group of the day, meet their tour guide, Mary Beth (Cristina Applegate), a young lady who recognizes this group of troublemakers needs something else to hold their attention. She takes them in the back entrance, into the museum's warehouse, and shows them a collection of Day of the Dead items. Spiking the attention of the kids, Mary Beth shows them The Book of Life, a magical volume holding the history of all of Mexico. She begins to tell them the tale of Maria, Manolo and Joaquin, three young kids growing up together in a small town, San Angel, in the center of Mexico. The kids are too young to have romantic feelings for one another, but this doesn't stop La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), two of the guardians of the three underworlds, from making a bet. Each picks one of the boys to eventually win the hand of Maria. But Maria causes a bit of mischief and is sent to school in Spain, leaving Manolo to deal with the family legacy of becoming a great bullfighter (he would rather play his guitar) and Joaquin to deal with his family legacy of becoming a great soldier. Some years later, Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns a beautiful young lady and Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) renew their attentions, each vying for her love. But Xibalba, not content to let the bet play out naturally, sends his snake to pay Manolo a visit. Manolo then begins a journey through the underworlds where he meets many of his deceased family members. But he has to make his way back to the living to help Maria and Joaquin deal with an impending invasion from Chakal (Dan Navarro), a ruthless bandit who invades and destroys towns.
Featuring the voice talents of a plethora of Mexican and Spanish personalities (Cheech Marin, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Danny Trejo, Hector Elizondo, etc.) and a number of others (Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Channing Tatum), "The Book of Life" has a lot of characters and each features a unique and interesting design based on the Day of the Dead. This makes them interesting but the characters also take on the look of wooden puppets - Mary Beth initially shows the kids a collection of puppets, so this shapes their imagination throughout. And as some of the characters travel through the three different Other Worlds, they change for this journey as well. While this is all great to look at, it is difficult to keep track of. If an adult has difficulty keeping track of all the characters, do many of the kids in the audience stand a chance?
The key to a great animated film: the filmmakers include elements for both kids and adults. Humor is a big part of that; a memorable animated film features jokes designed to keep adults laughing while the kids laugh at jokes designed just for them. If a film has jokes only for kids, the parents will feel every minute of the running time on their butts after they get up to leave. "The Book of Life" wasn't as funny as I imagined it might be. There are a few jokes, but they seem few and far between. Maybe I missed some of the jokes while trying to concentrate on all of the characters and action. I would rather miss a joke or two because I am still laughing at an earlier piece of funny business, not because I am trying to keep track of everything.
Very often, Disney and Pixar films feature darker narrative elements, creating richer narratives to make a better, more interesting film. "The Book of Life" has that, it features the Day of the Dead, skeletons, death, purgatory, hell. Yet, these are treated almost as everyday occurrences by the characters removing much of the gravitas. I think it is great these elements feature so prominently in an animated film, exposing the audience to another culture's celebrations. But because these elements are accepted and common place, at least in this animated universe, this is the norm and robs the narrative of some of it's drama.
The style of "The Book of Life" is unlike anything you have ever seen in an animated film before. The characters are each unique and have a blocky appearance, thanks to the wooden puppets inspiring them, so they are far from life like. They move in a fluid, almost natural way, but you will never mistake any of them for a human. And that is OK. Not every animated character has to try to emulate a real person. These characters are descendants of the Nickelodeon school; noses are very exaggerated, the actions seem more reminiscent of Tex Avery, bodies are very boxy, the vehicles seem like over inflated balloons, they wear extremely bright colors. This difference in style takes a moment to get used to, but it works.
Each of the voice actors is OK. When the lead actors appear in live action films, each is good because they have facial expressions and body language to add to their performances, but because they are limited to the use of their voices, these performances fall flat. In short, it is difficult to tell what Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum bring to these roles that any other actor couldn't. When you watch an animated film, you need voices that are distinctive, unusual and energetic to bring the characters to life. When you think about the most memorable animated creations, quiet and demure doesn't immediately come to mind. And Luna, Saldana and Tatum are just that, pretty quiet and demure. It almost seems like they forgot they are in an animated film. Tatum, in particular, is simply boring. He doesn’t seem to even attempt an accent or to pronounce certain words correctly. Instead, he makes Joaquin seem like a Southern white boy transplanted to Mexico.
When you begin looking at some of the supporting characters, the voices start to liven up. Kate del Castillo (most recently in “No Good Deed”) is pretty good, bringing a lot of sass and life to the role of La Muerte. She seems both confident and caring as she guides Manolo, Maria and Joaquin through this adventure. It is a role that comes close to Pat Carroll’s Ursula in "The Little Mermaid". La Muerte isn't a villain, but she has the same larger-than-life attitude as Ursula. I don't think it is possible for Ron Perlman to play quiet and demure, so Xibalba isn't either of these things. Perlman's rich bass voice brings a mighty timbre to the role. Ice Cube is also playful as Candle Maker, bringing a mild goofiness to the role of the third leader of the underworlds.
As mentioned before, just about every Latino actor lends their voice to this animated film. Because there are so many characters, it is difficult to keep track of them. And because there are so many characters running around, each has less screen-time than they probably should, which makes it harder for any one of them to make an impact.
The element that really hampers "The Book of Life", is the narrative co-written by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale (lots of animated TV shows). There are three main characters; most of the time, the three characters are together, but it still divides your attention. Then, when the story begins to wind to the climax, Manolo, Maria and Joaquin get divided and each has a battle to overcome before the story comes to its conclusion. As each of the characters is now in a different area and fighting someone or something different, this takes our attention in three different directions, while Gutierrez spends a few minutes following one, before cutting to another. And each of these characters has a whole set of supporting players following them around. It takes a lot of attention and effort to keep up with everything. In a good Disney or Pixar film, the action centers on one character. Yes, there are many other characters swirling around the hero, but the story belongs to one person (animal, extraterrestrial being, whatever) giving the audience someone to identify with and a whole slew of boys or girls to emulate. Because we are following the story of one person, their journey leaves a lasting impression.
It is exciting to see a new representation in animated film and to have a new voice emerge. I think that the filmmakers will be able to refine their skills and eventually create something that will be able to rival the best of the best. "The Book of Life" shows they have a lot of skill, they simply need to refine and practice it. Three of four films from now, they might have something to make you sit up and take notice.