I don’t often commit to seeing a movie in theaters without knowing something about it. Movies are just too expensive to take chances on. I had heard good things about Book of Life and was struck by an interview with the main person behind it on NPR. While Mexican culture is mostly unfamiliar to me, I have a strange fascination with more ancient cultures, like the Aztec and Mayans, who undoubtedly have influenced Mexican culture alongside Spanish and Catholic influences. Knowing Book of Life was a visual film about the Day of the Dead, that alone was enough to get me interested.
First things first: the plot to this movie is dull. It centers on a love triangle where two local boys, one the son of a famous hero and the other the son of a famous bullfighter, fight for the right to marry the town’s most beautiful daughter. It’s a cliche and terrible plot device that has worn out its welcome even with superior character development, let alone the character development in this film, which is at a minimum given the focus on visuals, jokes, and keeping it kid-friendly. Thankfully the movie does try to subvert the plot in a nod to, you know, women being human beings capable of running their own lives, but it still grates.
Humor is where Book of Life hooks you. Yes, the visuals are amazing and the art style offers a unique glimpse of Mexican culture – you won’t go wrong with them. The humor, however, gets you laughing almost immediately when you are told that Mexican is the center of the world and the map depicting this puts a large mustache squarely on the country as a nod to its rich, well-coiffed facial hair history. Some jokes are a bit manic and some come at the expense of the film’s excruciatingly awkward soundtrack (Radiohead’s Creep as a song about unrequited love with a light Spanish guitar flair? WHAT?), but they all have legs. The film also doesn’t beat you over the head with them, which would’ve been an easy way for the Book of Life to cross out of Disney/Pixar land into the straight-to-DVD land of children’s movies.
Front and center, Book of Life does a fantastic job of showcasing the fantastical aspects of Mexican culture. The betting between the film’s two god characters, the journey into the culture’s two underworlds, and a large cast of psychopomps that give the second half of the film a new life all make this a worthy representative of a sadly underrepresented culture here in North America.
You won’t drop dead from the awesomeness, but, if you do, there may be a way to fight your way back to the land of the living. You’ll certainly want to because this movie belongs in the Land of the Remembered and it’ll need people like us spreading word of its many merits!