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Non-Review Review: Book of Life

Book of Life bristles with energy – almost too much energy at times.

Book of Life is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, dynamic and beautiful, elegantly crafted and lovingly staged. It is packed with eye-popping visuals and an electric energy. In many ways, these help to compensate for a script that is simultaneously under-plotted and hyperactive. The basic plot arc of Book of Life – and the trajectory of all the featured characters – can be mapped from the opening scenes, while the movie is over-stuffed with pop culture references and snappy asides.

Book of Life is exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, almost perfectly calibrated for its ninety-minute runtime. The result is a stylish and suave animated film that pops out of the screen, even if it doesn’t lodge in the memory. There’s little here that hasn’t been done before, but rarely has it been done so stylishly.

bookofthedead3Book of Life is a story about stories. As such, it makes sense that it draws on fairly wide archetypes. At the centre of the story is a love triangle – Maria finds herself forced to choose between two eligible suitors. Manolo Sanchez is the smart and sensitive matador who cannot bring himself to kill; Joaquin is the ego-centric military hero protected by a medal affording him immortality. In the meantime, the two guardians of the underworld – La Muerte and Xibalba – have wagered on the union, each backing a different horse.

The set-up and execution are pretty stock. It’s quite clear exactly how the film is going to play out, and Book of Life hits all the necessary plot beats. There are snappy musical numbers, comic relief supporting characters, adorable animals, and even a trip into the afterlife as Manolo embarks on a desperate rescue mission. Book of Life is never too concerned with how all this ties together, so we the plotting tends to move in fits and starts.

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At several points in the film, rules are introduced after the fact in order to justify various plot twists. For example, Xibalba’s inevitable betrayal of Manolo is not foreshadowed, instead explained away in throwaway dialogue after the gambit has already already played out. Book of Life is not overly interested in the mechanics of how the story plays out, just in hitting the requisite beats. Xibalba’s betrayal of Manolo is all but dictated by the story, so why worry about the particulars?

There’s a sense that Book of Life isn’t entirely sure about how to connect everything. Appropriately enough for a movie about stories, there’s a framing device featuring a school tour of a museum, leading to a recounting of the central narrative. However, this framing device serves to add very little to the story, except providing a larger (and just as generic) story to wrap around the central narrative. After all, there’s nothing to explain why this story is relevant to these kids.

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However, for all that, Book of Life looks and sounds amazing. The characters are animated in the style of wooden puppets and figures, while keeping their eyes expressive. The character designs are fantastic, with the models accurately and effectively defining each of the characters within the story – almost as well as the script itself. The models are beautiful and detailed, expressive and articulate. Even the most basic of movements become intriguing and elegant – like watching puppets move without strings.

The worlds inhabited by these characters are also fantastically crafted. Even the “real” world inhabited by Manolo and Maria is heavily stylised and beautifully constructed – resembling something like a computer-generated version of Aardvark’s animation. Things look even more beautiful when the film ventures into the land of the dead, a bright-coloured realm that seems to be in the midst of an eternal party.

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There’s a sense of movement and dynamism to Book of Life that is hard to resist. The film is populated with mariachi-style cover versions of popular songs, reimaginings of songs as diverse as Radiohead’s Creep or Elvis Presley’s I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You or even Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? There’s something playful and exciting about the film, which always seems to be in motion. Whatever story problems exist within Book of Life are offset by this vibrancy.

This vibrancy is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Book of Life. It is nice – and rather novel – to have a film that portrays death as something that is not to be feared or outwitted… or even dreaded. It is inevitable, but is also not always cruel and malicious. Book of Life plays with the traditional Orpheus narrative, subverting it ever so slightly. Sure, Manolo winds up in the afterlife and has to return to the land of the living, but he does not have to rescue anybody during his visit.

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Similarly, although Book of Life centres on a bet made with supernatural forces, mortals are not shown to be in competition with those forces. The bet that drives the plot of Book of Life is made between La Muerte and Xibalba, with Manolo and Joaquin unaware of that gamble for most of the film’s run time. Manolo’s primary objective is never to defeat or outwit Xibalba, merely to live his life on his own term despite outside meddling.

Even the bet between La Muerte and Xibalba seems more like friendly competition than some eternal feud. Although its subject matter centres on the macabre, Book of Life seems to suggest that life and love should always take priority over matters of death. For all his plotting and conniving, Xibalba is forgiven by the time the credits roll around. Nobody seems to bear him any ill will, and he fosters no lingering resentment.

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Instead, Book of Life suggests the dead live on as long as they are remembered – a very sincere and affecting twist on traditional pop culture narratives about the afterlife. The movie opens – and primarily unfolds – on “the day of the dead”, when families take the time to honour the passing of their loved ones. This is not a mournful lament of their loss, but a joyous celebration of their memory. Book of Life is at its best when it plays with these ideas.

Book of Life is not plotted well enough to be a true family classic. However it’s a fun and diverting adventure, with a fairly generic story playing out in very sleek and stylish surroundings.

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