Tag-Team Reviews
The Book of Life

By Jorge Figueiredo - February 5th, 2015


‎High quality animated films have been the norm for quite some time now; but every once in a while, a non-Disney film manages to amaze and captivate us. Fox’s The Book of Life (written and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced in part by Guillermo Del Toro) was out in theaters towards the end of last year, but it made its debut among a number of other hugely anticipated films. Smallest Thumbs and I never got out to see it during its run, but we were lucky enough to be sent a copy for review. The Book of Life’s gorgeous design and amazing sense of pacing delivers a compelling story in a world where people and gods walk almost in step with each other – and where lowly mortals can still inspire their immortal counterparts. If you have not seen this wonderful film yet, we highly recommend it.

The Book of Life is told as a story within a story. A group of unruly children are the last group of the day to arrive at a museum, much to the chagrin of an older tour guide (who is the target of spit balls). Thankfully, another tour guide (a young woman who seems to be too quick for the bratty kids – played by Christina Applegate) offers to take over the tour for him – to which he joyfully obliges. She takes the kids on a tour of the Mexican wing of the museum, and shows them the Book of Life, which contains every important story within its pages. The story that the tour guide decides to show the children involves two gods and a wager made between them at the Day of the Dead festival (Día de los Muertos – November 2nd) in the quaint town of San Angel. The two gods make a wager that will change everything. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) rules one part of the afterlife known as The Land of the Remembered; it is a place more colourful than life itself, where the dead are remembered and live happily ever after. Xibalba (Ron Perlman), on the other hand, lords over The Land of the Forgotten; this place is grey and dark – where the dead have been forgotten and have become truly lifeless – in other words, the opposite of La Muerte’s after-world kingdom.

The three amigos.

The two gods observe three children celebrating the day with their families. Maria, Manolo and Joaquin are friends who play together, though it is clear from the start that both boys desire the love of Maria. The two gods each choose one of the boys to be their champion, and whomever’s champion wins the hand of the fair Maria and marries her will be the winner. If Xibalba’s champion wins, he will become the ruler of The Land of the Remembered (leaving La Muerte to switch places with him and rule the Land of the Forgotten); if La Muerte’s champion wins, then Xibalba can never again interfere in the matters of mortals. Shortly after the bet, Maria is sent away to Europe by her father, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui), to study with the nuns. Meanwhile, Joaquin and Manolo grow up in San Angel, with Manolo’s father, Carlos (Hector Elizondo), trying to groom him to become a bullfighter (a family tradition), while Joaquin follows in the footsteps of his father (a great warrior).

Eventually, the kids grow up. Maria (Zoe Saldana) comes back to find that her two friends are still in love with her. Manolo (Diego Luna) has grown up to be an accomplished musician (which his father doesn’t like), but also a great bullfighter who refuses to actually kill the bulls that he fights (another sore spot for his father). Joaquin (Channing Tatum), on the other hand, is a great warrior and something of a showoff, thanks to a little secret that he keeps hidden from sight. As their story unfolds, it is quite clear that Manolo will be the winner of the bet, until Xibalba steps in. Manolo has to make his way through the land of the dead and find the love of his life – against all odds. Saying any more would spoil the tale, so that is where we shall leave it. Are there themes presented that have been demonstrated in other films? Yes. Are there familiar story elements? Of course! Is The Book of Life really worth watching, then? Absolutely. Every. Single. Minute.

The bet is on!

From a kid’s perspective, the film is nothing but fun. Smallest Thumbs (who is almost 8), thoroughly enjoyed the film. She loved the characters, and found them easy to identify with. The many instances of humour really appealed to her, and there were moments in the movie where she was laughing from her toes. There are uncomfortable moments, too – such as the inescapable conclusion that one of the friends will not get what they want (or what they appear to want) – however, these are dealt with admirably, so your kids won’t be jarred emotionally. Above all else, it seems, the music really grabbed a hold of Smallest Thumbs and still hasn’t let go. Be warned if you have children in the house who love to sing!

The Book of Life is undoubtedly a very busy film; lots is going on at all times, but it ends up being a beautiful moving tapestry with the various threads of sub-plots slowly being woven together throughout the course of the film until they finally form the final moment (which may not arrive when you think it does, for the record). Gorgeous visuals play with Mexican imagery, and character and set design reflect the nature of the subjects. For instance, the Earth-bound creatures resemble wooden puppets from a story-book, with amazing wooden textures revealed in the many close-up shots. On the other hand, the gods are far more fluid and airy, with parts of their costume constantly moving in unseen breezes. This contrast demonstrates an eye for detail, and great care in craft. Couple this visual work ethic with beautiful music (composed of original scores and latin-flavoured cover tunes), and excellent voice acting, and you have yourself a film that does a great job entertaining a very wide range of people.

Seriously gorgeous rendering here.

The video quality of The Book of Life is top-notch. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is presented in a ratio of 2.39:1, and is chock-full of brilliant colours and gorgeous animation. There is very little to complain about in terms of the graphics (although, there is an awkwardly rendered moment or two – not uncommon in animated films); colours are well-presented, everything is crisp and sharp, and the contrast is deep (which is very apparent when Xibalba is on screen, or when The Land of the Forgotton is being shown). The screenshots posted alongside the text in this article cannot properly do the movie justice – it has to be seen. Honestly, I didn’t see any artifacts in this movie – but there could have been some tucked away somewhere in the hypnotic colours.

Sound effects, music and dialogue are almost as complex as the eye candy, and sound fantastic with the DTS-HD Master. The lossless 7.1 track is well-utilized for all three aspects of the audio, with priority being placed on the dialogue. Sound effects make great use of the surround field, as does (surprisingly) the music, which really fills the viewing space. With such great visual and aural candy, your eyes and ears will be happy, just as your brain will enjoy the great story.

Awww, Chuy!

There are a number of neat extras on this disc. The Adventures of Chuy is a great animated short (just over 3 minutes in length) that features Maria’s little pig companion. Closer Look at the Book of Life is approximately 10 minutes of getting to know the voice cast and Guillermo del Toro (it’s actually a lot of fun to check out). The Music of Life takes about 9 minutes to focus on the score (written by Gustavo Santaolalla). Digital Carpenters: Behind the Book of Life at Reel FX focuses on the animation process behind the film that gives it its unique-looking visuals (11 minutes). Music Machine contains all of the musical selections from the film, with the option to play them all (total time is almost 25 minutes). There is also a music video, audio commentary by the director, and a number of Gallery items (Meet the Cast, Visual Development, Background poster paintings and more). Finally, there is the original Theatrical Trailer. All of the features are presented in 1080p.

The Book of Life takes familiar elements and spins them around and adds some Mexican flavour to create a slightly new story to enjoy. The recycling of tropes is forgivable when you factor in the beautiful visual design of the film, the captivating music, and the brilliant voice work. The film has been available digitally for about a month – and has been recently released on Blu-ray.

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