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Dustin Putman

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The Book of Life  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez.
Voice Cast: Diego Luna, Zoë Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Ice Cube, Hector Elizondo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Danny Trejo, Christina Applegate, Emil Bastien-Bouffard, Genesis Ochoa, Elias Garza, Plácido Domingo, Jorge R. Gutierrez, Eugenio Derbez, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, Ricardo El Mandril Sanchez, Ben Gleib, Grey DeLisle, Miguel Sandoval, Trey Bumpass, Dan Navarro, Kennedy Peil, Ishan Sharma, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Sandra Equihua, Callahan Clark, Gunnar Sizemore.
2014 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 13, 2014.
The idea of a film exploring a culture that does not often—or ever—get explored in studio-released animated features is appealing and admirable. It's too bad, then, that the final outcome isn't livelier and more confidently written. Reminding of a less-inspired variant of 1997's "Hercules," "The Book of Life" features familiar character types in a story that wears itself down in exposition. The computer animation is exceptional and the Mexican-flavored soundtrack of recognizable pop-rock tunes fun, but otherwise there is little on screen about which to get excited. The moment the movie is over, the memory of it begins to hastily evaporate.

A group of spitball-spewing detention kids are taken on a museum field trip, but once they arrive they are led on a secret, eye-opening alternate tour by their guide, Mary Beth (voiced by Christina Applegate). The November 2 Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead comes to life via Mary Beth's tale of the storied, fantastical love triangle between Maria (Zoë Saldana) and her childhood best friends, the modest, kind-hearted Manolo (Diego Luna) and decorated soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum). When a bet is made between Land of the Remembered ruler La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Land of the Forgotten ruler Xibalda (Ron Perlman) about who Maria will choose, Xibalda's devious schemes lead to a misunderstanding about Maria's fate and, ultimately, Manolo's death by snake bite. Reunited in the afterlife with deceased mom Carmen (Ana de la Reguera), Manolo is determined to get a second chance at life—and return to his one true love.

Written and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez (making his big-screen debut) and co-penned by Douglas Langdale, "The Book of Life" is a mid-level trifle. Aesthetically, it looks great, its characters imagined as wood-carved living beings in eclectic, detailed surroundings, but the film features low-wattage energy and the screenplay has little of the verve and personality that, for example, the top Disney and Pixar toons possess. The trio of protagonists—Manolo, Maria and Joaquin—are stuck in a shaggy romantic plot that offers no mystery as to whom Maria is meant to be with. Their conflicts are accurate, however, to their traditional, old-world era, with Maria pressured by her father (Carlos Alazraqui) to marry the respected Joaquin, whom he believes will help save their town of San Angel from the marauding, beastly Chakal. Meanwhile, as Joaquin follows in his late military father's footsteps, aspiring musician Manolo wants nothing to do with his own dad's (Hector Elizondo) demands that he honor their family name by becoming a bullfighter.

These three leads experience positive individual arcs as the third act comes into focus, but director Gutierrez spends so much time explaining his overstuffed plot and character motivations that it adversely weighs down the proceedings. Free-thinker Maria is understandably perturbed when Joaquin suggests her main purpose should be to serve him—this early scene in and of itself is enough to cement that Manolo is her better match—but nothing is made of the equally offensive comment from Land of the Living ruler The Candlemaker (Ice Cube) that the upcoming voyage is "much too dangerous for a lady." When Manolo finds himself in the Land of the Remembered, exploration of this realm (and that of the gloomy, dastardly Land of the Forgotten) is noticeably underutilized. Near the end, the hinky parallels to a biblical resurrection are troublesome to say the least; the other characters barely raise an eyebrow, but it is a supremely weird and off-putting development that doesn't for a second take into account the ramifications of someone literally returning from the dead and back into the lives of those who have already mourned the loss of their loved one.

"The Book of Life" isn't quite festive or informative enough for viewers to feel fully immersed in the Day of the Dead celebration, and as a story the film falls on the side of typical and shopworn. The diverse use of songs—much of it coming from Manolo's guitar-strumming musicality—is arguably its most inventive flourish, with everything from Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" to Radiohead's "Creep" receiving an unexpected moment in the spotlight. When the film reaches into end credits, though, it is difficult to feel much excitement or enthusiasm. The picture neither lifted my spirit nor made me feel the heightened emotions it was so obviously striving for. Were it not for the purposes of this review, "The Book of Life" would already be completely forgotten.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman