“The Book of Life” is the latest attempt from Reel FX Creative Studios—the studio behind “Free Birds”—to bring a distinctive animated feature to screens. It is a visual masterpiece, but it ultimately fails to leave a long-lasting effect on its viewers.
“The Book of Life” begins with a group of students arriving at a museum on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, for a tour. A mysterious tour guide leads the group through a spooky gate into a chamber that holds the magical Book of Life. The guide proceeds to tell the story of San Angel, a town in Mexico described as the center of the universe, and two gods: La Muerte, the god of the Land of the Remembered, and Xilbalba, the god of the Land of the Forgotten. On the Day of the Dead, these two gods bet on three kids, a girl named María (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and two boys named Manolo and Joaquín (voiced by Diego Luna and Channing Tatum, respectively) who are both in love with María. If María marries Manolo, Xilbalba will never interfere in mortal lives again, but if she marries Joaquín, La Muerte will switch lands with Xilbalba.
Last month, “The Boxtrolls” brought a unique, beloved animation style back to screens, offering outstanding visuals for those who are bored with the realistic images used in most Disney and Pixar movies. To my surprise, “The Book of Life” brings yet another style that is not often used in the animation industry. The universe of “The Book of Life” consists of three worlds, the Land of the Living, the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten. Each land is unique and astonishingly beautiful. With each shift between the lands, the feel and energy of the movie changes to make every frame of it visually pleasing. While the story is heavily influenced by Mexican culture—something that is often evaded to avoid limiting the audience demographic—with visuals and a vibrant color pallet that are true to its theme and the characters, these are perhaps the only things that will keep you pinned down on your seat.
Although there are effective jokes lined up throughout the story, they can’t help the poorly written script from worsening as the plot advances. There is a smart twist in the middle of the movie that seems to suggest a promising sub-plot, but instead it seems like the writers treated it as a gap, desperately struggled to fill it, and then leapt to an anti-climatic and predictable ending.
Unfortunately, even the very talented cast is not enough to distract from the charm-deficient script. While there are some great romantic songs along the journey of the three main characters, they are poorly integrated into the soundtrack. There are numerous scenes that could have used a better soundtrack along with the scenes that are unnecessarily overlapped by a song. “The Book of Life” will make you furious with its writers since it could have been so much more if only it had a screenplay worthy of its visual greatness.
No one can deny that “The Book of Life” is one of the most visually inventive and striking films of the year, but it is also a perfect example that even visual perfection is not enough to make a movie memorable when an unsatisfactory script drags it down. With its breathtaking scenery and brilliantly designed characters, “The Book of Life” will certainly fascinate you through its runtime, and it deserves to be watched and cherished. However, if you leave the cinema feeling pitiful, you don’t need to worry, “The Book of Life” will soon disappear into the Land of the Forgotten.