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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

The Book of Life: Movie Review

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Sand said:

The Book of Life uses as its springboard a Mexican cultural holiday, "Dia de los Muertos" -- that is, "Day of the Dead." On Dia de los Muertos, graves are cleaned and decorated with flowers, food is made for the spirits of the dead in the family, and everywhere are skeletons, depicted enjoying activities of the living. It is a day of calling to mind those who have died, and a reminder that we all are mortal as well.

In this animated film, a narrator tells the story of three friends: Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin. The boys grow up loving Maria; Maria is sent to Spain and returns a beautiful, spirited woman. Against a background of constantly threatening banditry, Manolo and Joaquin compete for Maria's affection, Manolo with song, and Joaquin with the strength and protection their village needs to survive.

Because the narrator is telling four kids this tale, the animated figures are all -- carved wooden dolls.

Artistically, this film is so richly saturated with color that it nearly drips off the screen, and of course, is so well done that you forget that it's animation. Some of the style will put you in mind of Samurai Jack, some will remind you of The Incredibles. And of Regular Show, which put me off just a teeny bit.

Conceptually, the film is pretty amazing. A bit of name-theft from ancient Mayan cultures, some patching in of Mexican folk religion, a dollop of New Age here and there, some hints at Roman Catholicism; romantic love, familial love, death, grief, and heroism ... and all are fairly sensitively done. One of the things that Americans are typically bad at is talking about the inevitability of death, and the reality of death. I think The Book of Life is a great way to take away some of our fear of death.

Bernie thought that I was ambivalent about the movie. I don't know that "ambivalent" would be the word I'd choose. I liked it, and hope to own it on DVD, although as a parent and grandparent, I hope that The Book of Life isn't seen as a true representation of religious practice.

One last thing bugs me a bit: is the popularity of The Book of Life going to produce a frenzy of Dia de los Muertos merchandizing and consumerism, turning a family remembrance day into a second Halloween?

At least if the neighbors see this movie, they'll finally understand why we draw calaca skeletons on the driveway, and serve food that our dead relatives loved on November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos.

Bernie said:

The Book of Life is a good movie. It will not be the Oscar winner for Best Animated Film because it will compete against The Lego Movie, and that movie is just simply too darn creative to not be the winner, and that's kind of a shame, because The Book of Life is a fabulous piece of art. From beginning to end, the film is stunning display of color and form. It makes you wish that there was another category of Oscar for "Artistic Design in an Animated Film." (There is a category call Best Production Design, and while it is an artsy kind of category, I don't think animated films are considered there.) I had the same thoughts back in 2011 when Rango beat out Kung Fu Panda 2. Rango deserved the win, but it was a crime not to have some way to recognize the stunning artwork of Panda.

Like Sand, I think there are eschatology issues that may be muddled in the telling of the tale, but I wouldn't be too scrupulous about it. What you have is a tale where family, friendship, loyalty, selflessness, and above all, love are those things which will endure over evil, greed and death. Presenting such abstract themes with images and situations that are accessible to young and old, to the educated and the unsophisticated, and doing so in an entertaining way is quite the task. The Book of Life succeeds in doing just that. It is a simple tale, told simply, but with a good sense of humor. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad -- a morality play. If you had just read the script, you might be tempted to blow this one off as just another fairy tale.

But oh, the art. This is truly a film you must go see. Every frame of this film could be made into a still, blown up and framed, and hung in a gallery, and it would make for a wonderful exhibition.

Definitely kid friendly and definitely worth your trip to the movie house.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-10-27
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