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The Book of Life

I had every reason to be hyped about this one.

The trailers for The Book of Life showed a film with superb animation, a stellar voice cast, and a classic archetypal fairy tale story, wrapped in a distinctive “Dia de los Muertos” style and presented by Guillermo del Toro himself. Granted, he’s only credited as the film’s producer, but everything about this movie practically had his name written on it in huge neon letters.

On the other hand, a trailer also showed a few comic relief side characters warbling out a chorus of “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie. Leaving aside the godawful singing on display (there’s no way to sing that chorus on key, after all), why the hell would this fairy tale romance feature a song about some guy getting played for a chump by a two-timing bitch? Then came subsequent trailers, in which Ice Cube actually says “Today was a good day.”

Dia de los Muertos, fairy tales, and ’90s rap? What’s the connection?

Of course, pop culture references in kids’ films are nothing new, and plenty of films in the genre have included jokes meant solely for the adults in the audience, but I thought we had moved past that. None of Laika’s movies ever had such pandering, so far as I recall. Neither did Frozen. The Lego Movie and Wreck-It Ralph? Okay, pop culture references were built into the premises of those films, but never in a way that felt dated or immature. And there’s the irony of it. Pop culture references included to make kids’ films more modern only made them dated, and more “mature” humor only made the movies more immature. I thought Hollywood had finally learned that lesson, but I guess not.

Of course, I realize that I’m putting the cart before the horse. I really should know better than to judge a movie by its previews, after all. But oh, gentle readers. I had no idea just how awful the soundtrack could get. Even when the rest of the movie surrounding it was so much better than I could have predicted.

Admittedly, The Book of Life starts out on very shaky ground. The film opens with an introduction to our narrator (Mary Beth, voiced by Christina Applegate), a museum guide who gives a very special tour to a group of teenage underachievers. Why is she telling this story to a bunch of random kids? And why is there a side door to the museum hidden by way of an optical illusion? Those issues make some degree of sense in the film’s closing moments, but in the meantime, this framing device is contrived as hell.

Then Mary Beth introduces the movie proper, setting our scene in San Angel. It’s a sleepy little town in the dead center of Mexico, which — as Mary Beth points out — is in the center of the universe. I shit you not: The entire universe revolves around Mexico. That is explicitly stated in the movie, within the opening five minutes. I don’t even know what to say to that. Throw in a couple of bewilderingly godawful poop jokes within the opening minutes, and I seriously started to worry that I was in trouble.

Then things started to pick up.

Our San Angel fairy tale involves three deities. First is the Candle Maker (Ice Cube), a jovial fellow who makes and protects the lit candles that represent individual lives. When the candles go out, that’s when the other two deities step in. One of them is La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who presides over the utopian Land of the Remembered, a paradise for the souls of the deceased who are still remembered among the living. Then there’s Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the demon who rules over the forgotten souls in the dark and dusty Land of the Forgotten.

Let’s pause for a moment to look at La Muerte and Xibalba in greater detail. Yes, the Candle Maker does have a significant role in the third act, but the other two gods are much more crucial to the narrative. The interplay between La Muerte and Xibalba was so rock-solid that I loved every moment they had onscreen together. Theirs is a very playful relationship, with constant rivalries tempered by terms of endearment. She knows that he can’t be trusted, and he’s incredibly jealous of what she has, yet there’s so much genuine passion between them that they keep coming back to each other. After all, I very much doubt that there’s another being in all the cosmos who’s powerful enough or smart enough to keep up with either of them.

Anyway, it seems that Xibalba was forced to rule the Land of the Forgotten because he cheated on a bet with La Muerte. Now, after rotting in that hellish landscape for several eons, Xibalba wants to turn the tables with another bet. If he wins, he switches realms with La Muerte. If he loses, then he never interferes with the living ever again (which, sad to say, is his only form of entertainment).

Enter our three main characters.

Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria (respectively voiced as adults by Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, and Zoe Saldana) are three childhood friends who love each other deeply, though Manolo and Joaquin are locked in fierce competition to marry Maria someday. Thus we have our wager: La Muerte bets on Manolo, Xibalba bets on Joaquin, and we’re off to the races.

Let’s take our main characters one at a time. Manolo, the primary hero of the story, grew up with a deep love for music. He’s spent his entire life working to be a great singer, but that clashes horribly with his long family heritage of bullfighting. What’s more, Manolo steps into the bullfighting ring, and he’s a natural. The guy can handle a bull and a cape with unbelievable flair. But he can’t bring himself to kill a bull, which makes him a pariah to the town and to his family. Manolo claims that he won’t kill bulls out of compassion, but everyone else calls him a coward who won’t fight anyone even at the potential cost of his own life. It could be one or the other, or maybe it’s something in between.

Next up is Joaquin. He’s the son of a solider who died in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, and Joaquin himself goes on to become a great soldier in his own right. In fact, Joaquin is commonly regarded as the only person in all the world who could possibly keep San Angel safe from a monstrous bandit named Chakal (voiced by Dan Navarro). There is a problem with that, however. See, Joaquin secretly possesses a powerful artifact created by Xibalba, which makes its wearer invulnerable to harm. Chakal finds out about this magical badge, and he charges out to San Angel with an army behind him to try and get it.

So basically, Manolo is being judged against the standard of Joaquin, and no one has any idea that Joaquin’s bravery and fighting skills are completely fake. Compare that to Manolo, who has to earn every step of his development and think his way out of conflict without the aid of magic or brute force. This of course leads to the question of how the two will measure up to each other once Joaquin finally loses his badge. The results may surprise you.

It also bears mentioning that Joaquin is a primeval, misogynist, self-centered git. This could easily have made him into a Gaston-type figure, more a villainous parody of a hero than anything else, yet there are so many ways in which Joaquin is kept from falling into that trap. First is the involvement of Channing Tatum, who’s quickly building a career out of poking fun at his own impossibly good looks. Second, the guy never comes off as willfully misogynist. Joaquin’s ego is so huge and his experience with women is so limited that he simply doesn’t know a thing about how to deal with the opposite sex. Perhaps most importantly, as much as Joaquin loves himself, there’s still enough room in his heart for San Angel and everyone in it. Though his rivalry with Manolo is always present and the two can cut each other deeply, there’s always a brotherly sense that neither of them could ever hate each other. Moreover, the guy has a moral code. As badly as he wants Maria, he wouldn’t cheat for her or commit any crimes to win her heart.

This brings us to Maria. She’s the daughter of the town’s de facto ruler (General Posada, voiced by Carlos Alazraqui), who ships her off to a boarding school in Spain to teach her a few manners. When Maria comes back, she’s grown into the most beautiful woman that anyone in the town has ever seen. And she still has a rebellious streak wider than the Panama Canal. Maria is not only gorgeous, but quick-witted, well-read, fiercely independent, and surprisingly capable of holding her own in a fight. Nobody in the town really knows what to do with her, especially since she seems so determined to make sure that her suitors truly earn her hand. No, Manolo and Joaquin aren’t getting off easy just because they all go back a long ways.

Zoe Saldana has shown a predilection toward strong female roles, and this is no exception. She does an incredible job of portraying Maria as a woman who wants to be treated as an equal — and more than earns her status as an equal — and not just someone who breaks suitors’ hearts to be a bitch about it. She’s proactive, she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s so much of a joy to watch. There seems to be a trend of empowered female characters in kid-friendly films (see also: Katniss Everdeen, Anna and Elsa of Frozen, Wyldstyle of The Lego Movie, Saldana’s portrayal of Gamora, etc.) and that’s a very positive sign. We need more of that.

Anyway, despite her best efforts, Maria may not have a choice in who she marries. See, everyone in the town is afraid that Chakal and his banditos could sack the town at any moment. They need Joaquin to keep the bogeyman away, which means that they need Maria to marry Joaquin and keep him there. Thus we have a wedding arranged by Maria’s father, though of course things happen to complicate matters.

If you take another close look at the three main characters, you’ll notice that all three of them are heavily influenced by their fathers. In this way, the film explores the concept of stepping out from the shadows of our forebears, encouraging the audience to go out and write our own story. The related theme of fate is also explored, which of course goes hand in hand with death. The film’s theology with regards to death is actually quite fascinating, structured in such a way that dying alone and forgotten would be a worse fate than merely dying. It also presents the idea that the dead are never really gone until they are forgotten, so the spirits may still be there to comfort those who remember them. Especially during the day of the dead, when spirits may come back to walk among the living.

Of course, the highlight of the film comes at the 45-minute mark. The film was impressive enough up to that point, with neat character designs, sterling animation, and overwhelming fun, but the whole film shifts to a higher gear after Manolo goes to the Land of the Remembered. Not only is the film loaded with vibrant colors and overwhelming spectacle, but it also shows Manolo reuniting with his deceased loved ones. Manolo meets with family he never even knew he had, and they all welcome him in poignant and jaw-dropping style. Seriously, if I died and went to a heaven that looked and felt like this, I’d be perfectly happy with that.

There’s a lot to like about this movie. The visuals are superlative across the board. The action is energetic and spectacular. The voice cast, with a few exceptions, is very strong. Debut writer/director Jorge Gutierrez does a shockingly good job of weaving so many disparate themes and storylines into a tight and coherent 95-minute whole. So what’s not to like? Well, let’s start with some nitpicks in the voice cast before we get to the really huge problem.

Diego Luna, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, and Danny Trejo all do fine work in this film. Jorge Gutierrez himself voices a prominent comic relief side character, and Guillermo del Toro gets a cameo role that’s laugh-out-loud hilarious in retrospect. Gabriel Iglesias and Cheech Marin don’t fare nearly as well, but that’s mostly because their characters were so completely useless.

HOWEVER. I’m a little bit peeved that the filmmakers put this much time and energy into assembling a top-notch voice cast of Hispanic actors and they couldn’t seem to find any room for Edward James Olmos. Seriously, what’s the excuse for that?

Getting back to the voice cast we got, there’s no question that Ice Cube is the weak link here. It’s not because he’s a black actor in a largely Hispanic cast — so is Zoe Saldana, and she gets by just fine. [CORRECTION: I have since been informed that Saldana is the daughter of a Dominican man and a Puerto Rican woman.]

No, the big problem is that Ice Cube keeps drawing attention to the fact that he’s Ice Cube. I have no idea if it’s his performance or the way his character was written, but the Candle Maker was portrayed in a laid-back streetwise sort of way that didn’t remotely mesh with anything else in the film. His voice was completely wrong for the character, and the character was written in a way that was completely wrong for the movie.

Which brings me to the soundtrack. Sweet merciful Quetzalcoatl, the soundtrack.

I thought it was bad when “Just a Friend” was sung in the trailer, and yes, it’s every bit as awful in the film proper. Then the film set a growing-up montage to a cover of “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons, and that was horrendous. But then Manolo started to play a cover of “Creep” and I damn near walked out of the theater. That’s right: This movie features a cover of “Creep.” By Radiohead.

Let’s set aside that “Creep” has been covered to death so many goddamn times that it’s lost all semblance of meaning. The far more important question is to ask why the hell this movie’s soundtrack contains so many horrible covers of modern pop songs. This is supposed to be a Mexican-themed fairy tale set at some time in the distant past, so why the hell is everyone singing modern American pop songs?! How does “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” (another song that’s been covered by everyone and their goldfish) even remotely fit into this story and advance the plot in such a special way that they had to use that particular song?

As best I can figure it, the covers were included because the original songs suck. I have no idea how such incredible talents like Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams could write anything as mind-numbingly bland as “I Love You Too Much,” but they did. The only time — and I do mean the only time — when the music was anywhere near bearable was during the aforementioned Land of the Remembered scene when everything else was firing on all cylinders (aside from a bit of redundant voice-over).

The Book of Life features an undeniably painful soundtrack, but that’s all the more disappointing because everything else about the movie is so damn good. It’s energetic and fun, with a good strong heart to match its dazzling visuals. The voice cast is generally solid, the characters are great to watch, and the jokes hit way more often than they miss. Though they do miss often, especially at the very beginning.

I very much regret missing out on the 3D premium for this one, because I’m sure that would’ve been a trip and this is a uniquely enjoyable movie that’s well worth the extra money. My recommendation comes with some very sizable caveats, but it’s happily given all the same.

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