Movie Review - The Book of Life (2014)

It's like someone put a few Disney movies in a Mexican blender and pushed the puree button. The character design is way more unique. The 3D animation is absolutely gorgeous. The figures on screen look like wooden puppets come to life, more specifically marionette puppets, moving as if by totally invisible strings. It's striking because the choice not to go with flesh characters but wood surfaces gives the whole world a more tactile feel to it, more than the typical, all-CGI cartoons.

Unlike Pixar films, or even the average Disney animation, this movie is really aimed at little children. The first few minutes have two poop jokes. The opening is an extended sequence of a love triangle between three children, but, for some reason, that opening sequence felt incredibly boring. It felt less than the first act of The Lion King (1994), but like that Oscar-winning film it builds to a growing-up montage that kicks the movie into gear and gives the film needed much energy.

Manolo Sanchez, voiced by Diego Luna, is a guitar player whose father wants him to be a bullfighter. Joaquin, voiced by Channing Tatum, is a decorated soldier who is very big and buff, indicated by the bigger wooden blocks that comprise his arms. Manolo is sweet and unassuming. Joaquin is all about his mustache and machismo, thumping his chest.

Both Manolo and Joaquin are in love with Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana, who is best described as like Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin (1992). Except, she has a pet pig and not a pet tiger. Like Jasmine, she has to choose a suitor, as such would decide the fate of the town. Maria isn't a Mexican princess though. She has a bit more agency. She can fence and knows karate.

Yet, there is a lot of puree Aladdin here beyond the female character. The movie takes place all on November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday, celebrated in conjunction with Halloween. Supposedly, the dead can go to various realms or to various levels of the afterlife. One realm is the Land of the Remembered. Another is the Land of the Forgotten. A bridge between the realms is the Cave of Souls.

The Cave of Souls is very reminiscent of the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin. The large, magical being that lives in the cave is the Candle Maker. He's rounded and ghost-like but glowing in color. He is very reminiscent of the Genie from Aladdin. Both are comical with their one-liners. Instead of being blue, the magical being here is orangish-yellow. Instead of Robin Williams, Ice Cube voices the magical being.

Like all villains, the villain here, at least the more aggressive one, is after a magical medal, a macguffin that isn't given the proper due of most macguffins. When compared to the villain in Aladdin, the villain here is virtually non-existent and appears really at the very end for a very anti-climactic battle.

The real climax occurs a few scenes prior during a song of forgiveness, which sets the stage for this film to face down the myth of redemptive violence. Writer and former film critic Gareth Higgins could have analyzed it better, but it doesn't totally carry-through all the way to the end. In the end, killing is still the ultimate solution. The filmmaker tries to layer sacrifice on top of it, but at least for the attempt to face down the myth of redemptive violence scores the film some points.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.


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