We’re spending the month of December looking back at some of the great new releases that we missed out on reviewing earlier this year. This is The Rest of 2014.
There was no shortage of animated films this year. Less expensive production costs have made turnaround time quicker than ever, and for every Boxtrolls or Big Hero 6, there was a Nut Job or Penguins of Madagascar. Children’s movies have long been ruled by the idea that if you put enough slapstick or funny animals onscreen, it’ll be a hit, regardless of the level of quality otherwise. That seems to be going away, thankfully, but there are still plenty of forgettable movies churned out by large studios, targeting an easy market. That’s why it’s remarkable that The Book of Life, which is only the second full-length outing from Reel FX Creative Studios, foregoes a lot of easy laughs in favor of a more genuine, engaging tale.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life is the story-within-a-story of the town of San Angel, a small Mexican village which is home to bullfighter and erstwhile musician Manolo (Diego Luna) and local military hero Joaquin (Channing Tatum). The two have been friends since childhood, but now find themselves competing for the affection of Maria (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the town elder who has just returned from Spain. Little do Manolo and Joaquin know that their rivalry has caught the eye of two powerful spirits: La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the kind ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the treacherous lord of the Land of the Forgotten. Eventually, to be reunited with his love, Manolo must travel through the lands of the dead with the spirits of his ancestors and defeat Xibalba.
That’s the general gist of it, although there’s a lot I’m cutting for length and to avoid spoilers. It’s a dense movie, bursting with mythology and side characters, but it never feels busy or drags. Everyone’s motivations are clear and relatable, if occasionally stock. Manolo comes from a family of bullfighters, but has a gentle heart and refuses to kill the bulls. Maria is intelligent and strong-willed, and resents her father’s attempts to pressure her into marriage. The highlight of the film from a character standpoint is probably Joaquin, surprisingly enough. Tatum has proven his chops time and time again as both a leading man and a comedian, and he takes what could be a one-dimensional jock role (think Gaston from Beauty and the Beast) and imbues it with a self-consciousness and awkwardness that makes a sometimes antagonistic character much more palatable.
Stylistically, the film is a seven-course feast for the eyes. The metafictional nature of the story (it’s being read by a tour guide to a group of kids at a museum, and characters are wooden dolls) allows for extreme levels of caricature and exaggeration without falling into farce. Designs are carved from basic shapes: bandits are spiky balls with limbs, soldiers and bullfighters are blocky and broad, young women are tall and elongated. It’s a whimsical world, and it doubles down in the second act, as Manolo descends to the Land of the Remembered. This afterlife is a Technicolor paradise, filled with confetti, parades, and towering castles filled with merrymakers. Those in the Land of the Remembered are jovial sugar skull-style skeletons with flames for pupils, a gorgeous, clever design touch that references the movie’s heritage without being overpowering.
Indeed, the film is a striking synthesis of Mexican folklore and traditions with new ideas and styles. There are hallmarks of the culture, from large story elements like the Dia de los Muertos to more subtle elements like San Angel’s geography mimicking that of Mexico City. At the same time, many specific supernatural elements are all new here, and some of the messages, like mercy on animals and women’s independence, would probably be hard to find in most classical fairy tales. Del Toro has talked about how important making films like this is to him as a parent, and that kind of commitment from the production team shows. It’s a bridge, connecting Mexican traditions and culture with updated themes.
The Book of Life is easily my favorite animated movie this year, which is no mean feat when LAIKA has something in theatres. It’s not perfect, as the sheer amount of side characters, jokes, and set pieces means that some stuff gets pretty shortchanged, and the songs in it (various flamenco rearrangements of current and older pop music) can be hit or miss. But in terms of something original, something that goes for aesthetics and heart over endless empty slapstick, it can’t be beat.
The Book of Life is due on disc and streaming formats in January 2015.