Netflix UK film review: The Book of Life
Nathanael Smith | On 21, Feb 2015
Director: Jorge R. Gutiérrez
Cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman
Watch The Book of Life online in the UK: Netflix UK iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The Book of Life, an animated curio that exists outside of the major American studios and produced by Guillermo del Toro, attempts in its runtime to be an anti-bullfighting fable, a comedy musical, a feminist romance and a visual spectacle, only succeeding properly at the very last of those. A double framing device of a school trip (often forgotten) and a wager between the rulers of two underworlds sets up the story of two best friends who love the same woman and would do anything to win her heart – with the ghoulish gamblers picking one each.
Being a non-American, non-studio-giant animation comes with its perks. Everyone is portrayed as wooden dolls, which shows that inventiveness can cover a lower budget. By making the characters moving marionettes, it not only removes the strange contemporary need for visual authenticity, but also firmly establishes that the whole thing is just one big story, played out with puppets, which lets you forgive some of its simpler choices. The characters move in an entirely different way to what we are used to, allowing for wild flights of fancy, which, given that the second act takes place in the realm of the dead, means that the animators can really unleash their imaginations. Throw in the Day of the Dead and the film feels distinctly Mexican (even while playing up to every Mexican stereotype under the sun), and that difference is welcome and largely works.
It’s confusing, then, that all of its problems feel oddly American, as if in trying to appeal to American audiences, the film-makers watched Shrek 3 on loop. Each of the two male leads has not one but three sidekicks, while the female has a pig who wouldn’t pass muster as a comedy animal in Over the Hedge. There are, inexplicably, songs throughout, including an inexcusably awful version of a Mumford and Sons song and Creep by Radiohead (the latter has even less justification). A finale that has dual action, set in both the world of the living and the dead, is really well executed, but then the movie stops for a song about why bullfighting is bad. The Lion King, it ain’t. It’s not even Brother Bear.
Then there is the storytelling, which never quite leaves the confines of cliche in the way you might hope. By the ending, The Book of Life has earned some of its goodwill back just by being quite nice, but before then you have to wade through the animation staple of two people trying to escape their fathers’ shadows, and a romantic wager that never leaves you in any doubt as to the outcome; the moment the creeping Lord of the Forgotten picks his victor, the audience is hardly going to root for him, or believe that he could win. It also undermines the laudable but half-hearted attempts at making a ‘two men fighting for a woman’ trope a little bit more feminist. One should really think about writing a stronger female lead before doing that, especially as one knows that the story can’t end with her unmarried anyway.
It’s a shame that a film that has a nice story and is visually inventive in ways that feel culturally distinct should then fall short thanks to problems that even DreamWorks have overcome in the last five years. A strange, often terrible, occasionally enchanting film.
The Book of Life is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.