The Book of Life (2014)
Open the Book of Life.
Are you a big fan of Cinco de Mayo? Maybe you love marionettes? Perhaps your even just bedazzled by fabulous wooden mustaches? This movie might have something for you if you nodded furiously for any of those question. Either way, lets find out if this movie can really pull your strings the right way, or if it's colorful best is found to just be a giant bull.
This story is many stories, told through one story. You see, at it's largest story we have that of a group of kids on a special tour at the museum, being told stories form the Book of Life - well, on in particular anyways. Within that story being told from the book exists roughly four stories - of those the one that encompasses the others is the bet between the two rulers of the realms of the dead - the lovely lady in charge of the colorful realm of the remembered (a happy, almost permanent fiesta place) and the scary looking caretaker for the realm of the forgotten (a rather bland and sorrow-filled place). You see, they make a bet on a batch of three friends as to which of the two boys will end up marrying the girl - which in turn is where spawns our other three stories.
One boy is born into a family of bullfighters and expected to be a bullfighter, although his desire is to be a mariachi - whom is chosen by the lady of the remembered. The other boy is the son of a deceased great hero, and wishes to be just as heroic himself - which is helped by a magical eternal life medal given to him by the ruler of the forgotten. The last is that of the girl - a lovely lass who's a bit of a strong-willed troublemaker, and for this get's sent to Spain to learn to be more... compliant? All three end up becoming separated due to their own stories playing out, but the movie shows us that with a simple montage and then picks back up when the girl returns a woman and the two men try to win her heart. In the case of our Hero, it's through blatant boasting, whereas our bullfighter ends up going as far as to shame his family by refusing to kill the bull he is fighting and then following up with his musical talents. When it seems he may lose his bet, the master of forgotten decides it's best to cheat - using trickery to lead to the bullfighter's demise.
From his demise, our bullfighter meets many of his dead relatives, and learns of the bet between the gods and how the one has cheated. His sadness over being tricked turns into a driven passion towards returning to life and his love, or at the very least exposing the cheating ways of the current bet "winner." This involves traveling to the realm of the forgotten, where along the way he learns that bandits are approaching his town and it's expected to be wiped out - putting a little bit of extra hustle in his steps. When the cheating treachery is exposed, he must defeat his greatest fear in order to win his chance again at life - all while the bandits close in on the town. Will he make it back to save the town? Will he win back his true love? Will she already be married?
Visuals are handled quite nicely here, and the CG is used to quite a stellar extent to pull off the marionette characters looks. From little flourishes in the colorful costumes, the extra sugar skull style markings on those who have passed, all the way down to the little wood grains visible in characters, it's certainly not hurtful to one's eyes to watch. Likewise, the animation itself is pretty smooth, never really feeling as though it's unnecessarily janky or stiff. This same bit of detail extends to the environments, but doesn't shine in that regard until the land of the remembered is visited and everything goes full-on party mode.
Audio is a mixed bag personally. Although I feel the actor's do a fine job, and the overall quality of it all is very polished, one thing amongst it all sticks out like a sore thumb: the songs. In a movie that begs to be taken as distinctly Mexican - from the story, to the (most the time) accented speech, down to some of the more stylized elements and setting - the choice to use modern-ish pop songs absolutely baffles my mind. Now, I have nothing personal against songs like Creep - it's an enjoyable song - but I just can't get my mind around the logic behind not finding something with a more mariachi feel behind it that may better fit the presentation. A great example of this is a song played in the underworld during the bullfighter's trial against a giant bull - which both directly reflects whats going on and has relevance to the plot, but also feels like it belongs. Maybe it's just because a wider audience wouldn't appreciate mariachi music, and my predisposition of loving the music from Desperado is skewing my opinion on this one, but of all the stuff in this flick, it's certainly the part the feels like the biggest dropped ball.
The plot, although uniquely Mexican themed, is relatively easy to follow due to not really springing too many surprises on the watcher. It's a romance flick in that sense - you know what's going to generally happen, even if it seems counter-intuitive, because "love conquers all" basically. Some might enjoy the fiery strong will of the 'leading' lady, but the same people who would focus on that would be annoyed over the fact that two guys are fighting over her (claiming it would render her as an object or whatnot). While it may hold truth, the simple fact is that two guys fighting for the affection of a woman is nothing exactly new in the romance field - and I'm not even really big into romance movies and I know this. It is nice, however, that by the end you do get to see a little bit of character growth out of the dashing hero with the mustache though, as to be honest I didn't expect it to be there in something that's not only a romance movie but also a general 'family' movie.
It's not a bad watch. The story isn't hard to follow, even though in reality its about six different plots going on at once, and better than that it isn't pretentious enough to make you sit through three hours worth of movie to try and spell everything out for you - when I saw what time it was when the movie came to a close, I was shocked to know that it only took up an hour and a half of my time. It didn't feel long and drawn out, and it knew the story it wanted to tell and focused entirely on it. You could dig out all kinds of little meanings if you want to, as it does deal quite a bit in things like remembering those who've passed before us, standing up for what you believe in, not being a dirty jerk-faced cheater - you know, the basic stuff. If you watch it just for fun though, you should find yourself relatively amused and entertained, so I feel that most might find it at least worth a rental.