The story of The Book of Life is familiar in its structure, yet novel in its presentation. It is about a love triangle between gentle guitarist Manolo (Diego Luna), swarthy swashbuckler Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and headstrong Maria (Zoe Saldana). It is set in a mythical version of Mexico, which is presided over by three deities: goddess La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), underworld overlord Xibalba (Ron Perlman), and the Candle Maker (Ice Cube), who acts as a balance between the two. La Muerte and Xibalba make a wager about who will win Maria’s heart, with the control over the two lands of the dead at stake—the color-blasted Land of the Remembered, and the ashen Land of the Forgotten. Circumstances lead to Manolo being tricked into dying, where he must team up with his deceased ancestors to return to the land of the living to reclaim Maria and save his village from marauders.
This film has an identity crisis. It seeks to celebrate Mexican culture, specifically Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s a Halloween movie for the culturally adventurous kid, and an absolute feast for the eyes. It feels as though a lot of love went into the making of this movie, and it is quite pleasing that a movie that has nothing to do with America has received such a wide release. Even Guillermo del Toro produced it.
And that’s when they played a kiddie mariachi version of Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait.”
This can mean only one of two things: either writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez hired a seriously misguided music supervisor, or the studio got its dirty mitts all over this production. I’m inclined to go with the latter. There are plenty of choices that feel odd in this film, both good and bad. Those that work: the casting of non-Hispanic actor Tatum in a lead role, which provides most of the film’s funniest moments. Another is an adorable pig named Chewy, who mercifully does not speak, but clearly was voiced by a man making oinking noises. The presence of Perlman is explained by del Toro’s association with the picture, and he was an excellent choice.
The worst parts of the film are chiefly its musical numbers, including the aforementioned musical debacle. Other songs that unfortunately make their way into the film include Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” and “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” I cringe at the thought of a studio executive commanding Gutierrez to nix joyful Mexican tunes in favor of American pop songs. I have no idea if this actually occurred, but I cannot explain it otherwise.
Another weak point is Luna’s performance as Manolo, the film’s protagonist. He is earnest and tries his very best, but his line readings never sound anything less than flat, especially among the likes of Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and Gabriel Iglesias. I am glad to see that they at least tried to cast a Hispanic actor in a film about Mexico, but Luna was the wrong choice. What was Gael García Bernal up to?
The film’s script is sometimes clever (a teenager groans, “Ugh, I hate stuff”) but mostly lazy—the fatal line, “Let’s do this!” is uttered far more times that can be counted. Ice Cube, who plays a deity in the film, has a line at the end of the film that is liable to make your ears bleed. The actors, save for Luna, do their very best to deliver the often trite dialogue, as well as the thuddingly obvious message, which is about believing in yourself. Don’t stop the presses.
Finally, there is an utterly redundant framing device in the film involving a group of so-called “detention kids” on a field trip to a government building, where they are waylaid by a woman confusingly dressed like an old fashioned flight attendant, who tells them the story of the Book of Life and the Day of the Dead. In the midst of the narrative, the film will stop dead in its tracks to remind you how you’re supposed to be feeling or to reassure you that the movie is not ending as soon as a character dies. We do not need this. Children do not need this.
When I left the theater, I was feeling pretty charitable towards The Book of Life. I was willing to forgive its many flaws because of its admittedly gorgeous art direction and energetic action. The mere fact of its existence made me happy. Upon reflection, I feel otherwise. When a film like this arrives so compromised, so utterly corrupted, I simply cannot recommend it.