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Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Book of Life Review: Standard, Lifeless Animated Fare

Even with stunning animation, the soulless The Book of Life fails to inspire.
The animated film The Book of Life suggests that every problem - no matter if it involves the living representations of Life and Death themselves - can be solved with song and a deep love for lost ones. And while I admire such values, it's clear that this soulless and lifeless doesn't get the mix quite right.

Based on the Mexican fable of Day of the Dead, Life tells the story of the hero Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the sensitive singer Manolo (Diego Luna) and their shared love Maria (Zoe Saldana). The three youngsters are inseparable, until Maria's father sends her to a convent. When they reunite years later, Manolo is training to take over the family business of bull riding, Joaquin is a successful warrior for the Mexican army, and Maria is a refined but independent woman. As bandits bring war to their town, our threesome must battle death himself (Ron Pelrman) and Manolo must make a difficult personal choice before his own life is lost.

While our cast is filled with talented Latinos, the casting of Tatum and Saldana is odd, and their deliveries are mostly stale. Stop me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't a movie based on a Mexican holiday as important as Thanksgiving is to us been filled with Latino voice actors and not white ones? That's perhaps a bold statement, but for a film of this type I think it's entirely appropriate. There's also this idea throughout the film that kindness and sensitivity will always defeat machismo or even outright evil, a outdated concept that fails to match anything in our current experiences. Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria seem more like 50's characters than relatable modern ones.

And then there's the Disney-inspired songs - most of which are rap and grunge hits from the '90s - played out with Mariachi styling and sounding more like elevator music than inspirational renditions. After awhile, these overly-sentimental bits get old and even predictable; I'm meant to gush over them, but eventually just wish they would end. To have such negative feelings in the first third of any movie is not a good sign. But Writer/Director Jorge R. Gutierrez keeps going, throwing in cheesy tunes and predictable tropes that would have been funny a decade ago. Here, they fall flat leading to a throwdown between the gang and Manolo's collection of dead ancestors. It's not the idea that's bad, but the execution - no one feels at risk throughout the sequence, and the predictability will make parents roll their eyes.

Don't get me wrong, there are some funny scenes and the animation is stunning. In 3D, images jump off the screen without succumbing to the standard in-you-face fare; at least in that way, Gutierrez succeeds. Given that young audiences have nothing but The Boxtrolls to see, it's possible that we could a sustained effort from Life if it receives early good buzz. Given its many issues - some of which border on stereotypical - that's unlikely.

The Book of Life is your standard animated film, filled with some of the best animated I've seen all year, but utterly lacking a soul. Filling up the Status Quo on every level, it succeeds at dumbing down the event on which it's based, with rote characters and stereotypes that not only won't inspire but could possibly offend.

The Book of Life is rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images and has a runtime of 95 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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