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Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: The Book of Life

The Movie Report

The Book of Life poster

*** 1/2; Rated PG
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Despite the literally limitless possibilities it presents to filmmakers or, more precisely, artists, feature digital animation has largely been in an ironic visual lockstep the last 20 years, deviating very little, if at all, from the general design model Pixar introduced with Toy Story in 1995. While there's definitely nothing wrong with playing within that established and still-effective norm, it takes a work as strikingly stylized and completely out-of-the box visually as Jorge R. Gutierrez's The Book of Life to make one realize just how homogenized, and even lazy, mainstream animated features have become--and how genuinely exciting it is to witness an artist confidently shatter barriers and boldly break new ground.

The contrast is clearly one not lost on Gutierrez (nor his ever-visionary producer, Guillermo del Toro), beginning the film with a framing device rendered in that familiar, now-traditional computer animation style, as a group of kids arrive at a museum on a school field trip. There, a guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) proceeds to tell them a fantastical tale of love and adventure set in Mexico and taking place around the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The distinctly, unapologetically Latin subject matter and magical realist approach is already rather radical in Hollywood terms, but that's nothing compared to Gutierrez's even more idiosyncratic way of visually enacting the main story. The triangle between macho, mustachioed soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum); sensitive musician/bullfighter Manolo (Diego Luna); and their spunky childhood friend Maria (Zoë Saldana) is first introduced by the museum guide through wooden figures--a motif that carries over as the film then largely shifts focus to a vision of Mexico where man, animal, and their surroundings alike look individually handcrafted by artisans. With that description comes all the "imperfections" such a description implies--and, thus, the painstaking and ironically perfectionist attention to detail that goes into creating, much less animating, such authentic looking figures. It would have been easy, and probably expected, to make the characters look literally polished, but that there are chips in the wood and the paint, and that the light reflects with a duller sheen rather than a pristine shine only begins to show just how dedicated Gutierrez (and character design collaborator Sandra Equihua, plus the artists and animators at Reel FX studios, making a quantum leap here over last year's harmless, but same-y, time-traveling turkey tale Free Birds) is to the unique flavor of his vision.

That distinctiveness grows even more dazzling so as the plot takes on increasingly fanciful directions. The visual influence of Mexican folk art first manifests in the literally otherworldly characters of the compassionate La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and the mischievous Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who make a playful bet over which of the two buddies ultimately wins Maria's affections. While clearly not made of anything close to wood, their more ornate and intricate designs are still very fluidly expressive in their animation, and that very much remains the case as Manolo's pursuit of Maria's love leads him away from his "real" world of wood and to and through La Muerte and Xibalba's respective deceased-dwelling domains of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. From the vibrant colors and buoyant, eternal party-like designs of the former to the more stark and haunting latter, with the character designs (Manolo's included) growing even more intricate, the mystical settings then enable Gutierrez to let his visual imagination run truly, excitingly amok.

But that imagination and abandon also comes through beyond the visuals. The voice casting is similarly inspired. If Luna as a romantic, Saldana as a plucky heroine, and Perlman as a rascally type are playing to their established wheelhouses (and they reliably play those parts well here), there are also a number of more unexpected choices that pay off. It certainly would have been easy (and undoubtedly more studio-favored) to cast a more mainstream-known name as La Muerte, but the great del Castillo lends the same unmistakable allure and shades of complexity and mystery that characterizes her live action work. Tatum wouldn't be the first to come to mind as a paragon of Mexican machismo, but his ever self-effacing sense of humor lends Joaquin a uniquely obnoxious yet good-natured charm. Best of all, though, is the off-the-map choice for the Candlemaker, the god that serves as the mediator between La Muerte and Xibalba: Ice Cube, clearly relishing the chance to play way against type as a bit of a cosmic kook. His raucous energy steals just about every scene he's in, and notably without contributing to the film's music--which is another lively, lovely touch in the film, especially with the character of Manolo being a singer/guitarist. But Gutierrez and composer/soundtrack producer Gustavo Santaolalla go the extra mile here as well, with the actual voice actors offering renditions of original songs (co-written by Paul Williams) as well as covers of familiar tunes of all genres from all time periods--all with a Latin music twist.

Admittedly, the whole jukebox movie musical approach isn't exactly new, with Moulin Rouge! and, in the animated feature realm, Happy Feet having already gone there. The same can be applied to Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale's screenplay as a whole, whose various plot points, character types, and sometimes lines of dialogue often harken back to, and sometimes even directly call back to, other films. While this makes for a narrative whose originality lags behind that displayed in other areas, Gutierrez wears those influences with blatantly affectionate pride, paying homage to the wide spectrum of art that shaped his own--from Latin, pop, rock, and hip-hop music to folk art to the macabre stop-motion oeuvre of the likes of Henry Selick to Greek mythology to the campy yet earnest melodrama of the telenovela to evergreen childhood fave films like The Princess Bride. The resulting narrative melange is not unlike what Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of, mixing, blending, reconfiguring such diverse sources in a way that what could feel hopelessly derivative instead plays as something familiar yet uniquely its own. And married to the sumptuous audiovisual feast that is the hearty main course of The Book of Life, it makes for an exciting and fresh filmmaking voice that is uniquely that of one Jorge R. Gutierrez.

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