Friday, 10 April 2015

The Book Of Life (2015) - Movie Review

Guillermo del Toro will always have a spot on my list of favourite filmmakers: Between his equal mastery over artistic ventures like Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos as well as more popular works like the Hellboy movies and Pacific Rim and his flexibility past the world of cinema with his Strain trilogy of novels and his upcoming team-up with Hideo Kojima on the latest Silent Hill game [2018 Update: Thanks for screwing that one up, Konami], I’d classify him as one of the few creative minds out there that legitimately has something for everyone. It may seem odd that I start this review out like this, since del Toro only produced this, but the man’s influence is such that it can be felt when he’s attached to films in less than obvious roles: Serving as a consultant on Kung Fu Panda 2, Cowboys & Aliens as well as the great cinematic roadblock that is Edge Of Tomorrow, and even though he isn’t directly credited for consultation on films like Puss In Boots and Rise Of The Guardians, there’s definitely some traces of his sense of imagination to be found in all of it. So, with his name pretty much synonymous with quality regardless of his role (Unless we’re talking While She Was Out or last year’s dismal Battle Of The Five Armies), how does this film pan out?

The plot: On the Mexican Day Of The Dead, Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the rulers of the Lands of the Forgotten and the Remembered respectively, decide to make a wager after Xibalba expresses discomfort over where he reigns: If Xibalba wins, the two swap dominions. They bet on who will win the hand of Maria (Zoe Saldana): The strong-headed but noble Joaquin (Channing Tatum) or the kindhearted but clumsy Manolo (Diego Luna), both of whom have been friends with Maria since childhood. However, it doesn’t take long for the stakes to be raised even higher, leading Manolo on a journey to set everything right again.

I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one: the animation is absolutely stunning. The vibrant landscapes of the lands of the dead and the town of San Angel and the marionette character models that fill them are gorgeous and make for an especially lively visual experience. The closest I can get to a reasonable comparison is if Luis Cook from Aardman Animation (check this out for an example of his work) did the movie adaptation of Grim Fandango, this is what it would look like right down to the designs for the faces that look like Dali’s wet dreams; throw the base model for The Masked Unit for good measure too. While the Western-esque vibe of San Angel is awesome on its own, the bright colours and atmosphere exuded from the Land of the Remembered is incredible; this might be the most appealing vision of the Afterlife I’ve seen in a very long time, if not ever… or, at least it would if the option of being stuck in the dark and dank underworld of the Land of the Forgotten wasn’t there, but still it looks really nice. The care taken with the animation extends into the action set pieces, like the numerous bull fights that could add to the argument of bull-fighting as an art form with how graceful the movements are here, or the climax that… is just that good that I’m not even going to hint at its contents.

I’ll refrain from making a joke about this film being full of colourful characters because of the animation style, but the cast of characters in this film are genuinely among some of the most fun I’ve watched, animated or otherwise. Diego Luna as Manolo imbues the character with certain adorkability to be sure, but he still has the right charisma to carry himself off as both a nimble bull-fighter and a competent mariachi. Speaking of mariachis, the Rodriguez brothers played by Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin and Ricardo Sánchez work great as the comic relief and all manage to balance annoying and funny perfectly. Zoe Saldana as Maria is refreshingly assertive, although I’m not sure if that says more about the films I watch or the films that have been getting release dates of late overall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up in discussions of strong female characters before too long; I would argue that such discussions shouldn’t be needed in the first place, but that’s a rant for another day. Del Toro BFF Ron Perlman brings his awesome presence to the role of Xibalba and makes for a damn good villain, pulling off the playful and at-times hostile banter with Kate del Castillo outstandingly well. Del Toro himself has a surprisingly memorable cameo role as the wife of the ferryman in the Land of the Remembered; without a doubt one of the funniest gags of the film.

Manolo’s family is full of eye-popping names from Machete himself Danny Trejo to Plácido fucking Domingo, all of whom do a great job at filling even the smaller bit roles to the brim with personality; it’s rare that an entire family is as memorable as the Sanchez’s are here. Even Ice Cube is great here as the celestial Candle Maker; the recognition of his voice is a bit off-putting at first, but the man’s natural commanding presence and charisma work greatly in the role’s favour. Honestly, the only real chink in the chain here is Channing Tatum as Joaquin, and that’s not because he’s bad in the role as while the director may have used the same ‘actions speak louder than words’ approach that served Tatum so well in Foxcatcher, Tatum himself does just fine with the dialogue he’s given. No, the reason he’s the weakest link is because, quite frankly, he is the most out-of-place sounding of the whole lot; he’s too white, is what I’m saying, and it gets distracting at times to the film’s detriment.

On the surface, the story may read as a pretty generic story concerning a love triangle and a re-working of the second half of Monkeybone… and, to be honest, it kind of is but there’s more than enough thrown into the mix to keep things interesting. A lot of that, though, has to do with the characters and the fact that more care has been put into them than what is usually seen attached to this kind of romantic tale. We get the usual bells and whistles like the female lead being pressured into marriage for one reason or another, the growing resentment between the romantic rivals and even the preferred mate being ‘predisposed’ to artificially increase the tension, but the actions made the characters and the way they’re written helps ease through all of that which has been seen before. Joaquin may be the stereotypical cocky rival but he genuinely feels like he has been friends with both Manolo and Maria for as long as he has and shows that level of familiarity with them, right down to signs of a conscience for some of the actions later on in the story. Maria flaunts being a tomboy like nobody’s business, making for a nice change of pace from the damsels in distress that we are still getting for Dude knows what reason. And while Manolo goes through the standard arc of trying to find his own path while being under pressure to follow the family legacy, the way the arc pans out actually makes for some decent drama, not to mention a damn good fight scene.

The weakest part of the story, though, is the framing device wrapped around it involving a bunch of kids at a museum being told this story by a tour guide. Not only do the interjections of reaction shots from the kids feel out-of-place every time they come up, as well as not adding anything worthwhile to the overall story, the fact that their bobble-head character designs look that much different from the puppets used in the main story keeps this movie from feeling completely smooth.

This film is touted as a musical, so it seems like I have to bring up the music regardless of how infrequently I do so normally. The musical arrangements are very well done; the Mexican flavoured instrumentation adds a lot to the covers shown throughout of Mumford & Sons’ I Will Wait and Biz Markie’s Just A Friend, among others, that add a lot of heart and humour to the film respectively. Hell, I still have the mariachi version of Just A Friend stuck in my head as I write this review. Gustavo Santaolalla moves away from the moodier scores he’s done for media like The Last Of Us and cuts loose here with some really fun tracks, not to mention a nice rendition of The Ecstasy Of Gold. Some of the love songs are a little too cheesy even for this romantic story, like Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling In Love and the Paul Williams-penned I Love You Too Much, but overall this is a good soundtrack.

All in all, this is a serious triumph of style over substance. The story may be flat in places and some of the songs are a bit too goofy, even considering we have a cover of Do Ya Think I’m Sexy in the track list, but the characters are so much fun to watch and the animation is such a treat for the eyes that whatever faults this film might have can be easily overlooked. That, and while this may be style over substance, that’s not to say that the substance we get is bad; far from it, as the emotional moments hit home more times than not. This is a great family-friendly watch with some awesome animation; I highly advise checking this one out and I can only hope that Jorge Gutierrez continues his venture into the world of the big screen.

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