Celebrate the Book of Life, Western-Style

17 Oct

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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Not many films truly acknowledge what another culture’s celebration is mainly about, and with The Book of Life, it does more than introduce to the world what the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about. It’s known as a time for family and friends to gather together to honour and remember those who have passed, but there’s more; for some people, it is a time of introspection. This three-day celebration begins October 31st and not everyone considers the image of the skull frightening.

This time to celebrate is a communion to show that nobody, in close familial bonds or mutual companionship, is not forgotten. And that’s what makes this film enjoyable to follow. The story is centred upon the deep affection three close friends have for each other while growing up in the fictional Mexican town of San Ángel. In their childhood, Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldaña), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are inseparable even though the passion of the heart and following what their parents want for them to become as adults would insert daggers into their relationship. After Maria is taken away to learn how to grow up to be a proper lady, Manolo and Joaquin are groomed to be, respectively, the world’s greatest bull fighter and soldier for their little town.

But the spirits from this culture, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) who hail from a bygone era know better. These children they are observing are human, and they wager which one of the two boys will win the heart of Maria. Xibalba is not keen on losing either, and sends his pet snake to kill Manolo and alter the course of destiny. Although he dies, what he experiences is an Orphic tale where he seeks to find his Maria (whom he assumed to have died too) and return to life.

The journey he undertakes is incredible more for the stunning artistry that gets presented than the familiar narrative that’s made. This story’s predicability does not ruin the movie, and it allows viewers to pay more attention to the spectacle. As a 3D film, the later acts when Manolo is in the afterlife are very well done. Even the children that this film is targeted to draw in will not struggle to understand the story.

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Manolo has to overcome personal challenges before he’s allowed to find Maria in this phantasmagoric world. Joaquin, however, has to continuously deal with living with the expectations the township has for him, especially in the shadow of his famous dad. This general helped protect San Ángel from bandits. Although his fears are never featured as prevalent as Manolo’s, to wonder what kinds of demons he has to face gets discarded for a very trim 95 minute film. The subplot about the bandits could have been fleshed out more and although the motivations are simple enough, more could have been done to bring this spaghetti western element of this movie out more.

For the leader of the bandits, Chakal (Dan Navarro) covets acquiring the Metal of Everlasting Life that Joaquin possesses. This minor villain’s motivations are unknown. That charm was given to him by Xibalba to help him become a respected soldier that he was, and the story eventually reveals how empty he felt. Joaquin’s back story is not fully understood until he finally comes to terms with what he has become. To see him acknowledge his shortcomings is what makes this film good, especially when everyone understands what they can do to make the most out of life.

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But in a movie that doesn’t get too deep in its character development, these points from the The Book of Life might get missed. Some audiences will be enthralled more by the technically and immaculately detailed world. From the wooden skin textures to the carved tattoos, there’s nothing missed in any of the sets, costumes or worlds created to make it feel generic. There’s even a few supporting characters that are taken right from a Pablo Picasso painting!

This wide variety all adds to the Cubist inspired world that’s created by writer/director Jorge Gutierrez. Co-writer Doug Langdale helped develop the plot and if only he was inspired to delve into the proto-Mexican culture more, this movie can earn a place next to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Instead, because Langdale’s past works included Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, some repetition of what’s tried and true from the cartoon and pop culture world are noticeable. Quite often, Maria, Manolo and Joaquin are heard saying, “No retreat, no surrender,” an all too close reminder of Lightyear’s own line, “Never Give Up! Never Surrender.”

Some people may chuckle, but they may be scratching their heads later on at wondering how Maria learned Kung Fu. Did Kwai Chang Caine visit the monastery she stayed in?

In an Hispanic tale, the inserted westernized elements into this narrative are just out-of-place. To dwell upon the beliefs a bit more would have made this film all the more appreciative. That includes the songs selected to be part of this film’s soundtrack. To hear Radiohead’s “Creep” or Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” is just weird. These latino remixes are well done but better choices could have been made to retain this film’s Mexican flavour that found with tunes like “Te Amo y Más.”

Without preserving this film’s cultural heritage, this movie will lose touch with the world its meant to honour.

3 Stars out of 5

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