Friday, December 1, 2017

Land of the forgotten


Despite suffering badly under the weight of the usual sins of 21st century animation, The Book of Life shines even so.  And it's definitely the best cartoon about Dia de Muertos they've made so far, Pixar.

Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez
Written by Doug Langdale and Jorge R. Gutierrez
With Diego Garcia (Manolo Sanchez), Zoe Saldana (Maria Posada), Famed Latino Actor Channing Tatum (Jaoquin Mondragon), Hector Elizondo (Carlos Sanchez), Ice Cube (The Candlemaker), Kate del Castillo (La Muerte), and Ron Perlman (Xibalba)

Spoiler alert: moderate

They say you never truly die as long as someone remembers you.  Actually, nobody says that, or, when they do, they don't mean it literally, like it is in Book of Life, which shares with Pixar's newest, Coco, a very specific premise—namely the idea that the Mexican-flavored afterlife is a colorful paradise for all those still remembered by the living, whilst for those who have been forgotten, it is an arid hell and/or total nonexistence.  But the last I checked, most of Mexico was Catholic; and you won't find this in Aztec or Mayan or Toltec mythology, either, or even the Santa Muerta cult, for that matter.  (Japanese gaki, or hungry ghosts, are kind of like the forgotten, I guess.  And Coco's major supporting character is indeed such a being.)  Still, as nearly as I can tell, the two films' common mythos is based upon precisely one poetic statement about the "definitive death," made by writer Victor Landa in 2003; and, of course, upon the general  tenor of both films' holiday inspiration, Dia de Muertos, the once-indigenous tradition that wound up getting retrofitted onto All Souls' Day by Mexico's Spanish conquerors, presently celebrated as a day to remember the dead because you miss them and they miss you, and not so much because they'll die-for-real if you don't.

Nevertheless, it does make a strong spine for a mystical journey with no proper God and questionable moral underpinnings (as noted last time, by the rules of this game, Hitler lives forever, whereas an infant orphan's mom vanishes precipitously into the void), and such is precisely what we get in The Book of Life, the second and most recent feature animation offering from Reel FX Studios.  The sad irony is that Book of Life itself seems well on its way to being forgotten—it's honestly surprising just how rarely the little classic has been mentioned in relationship to Coco.  The alternative explanation, of course, is that critics are willfully refusing to make the connection; and far be it from me to suggest that there can't be more than one movie about a holiday.  But that objection would come with somewhat more force if this pair shared only a mythological backdrop between them, rather than huge chunks of their plots, too.

That plot concerns two men and the woman they both love, all living in an ambiguous fantasia of early 20th century Revolutionary Mexico.  But this, of course, we've already learned from Book of Life's odd framing device, wherein a tour guide—in a museum somewhere in America, in the 21st century—having been entrusted with educating the youth about Mexico, elects instead to tell them about the Land of the Living, the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten, and about Manolo Sanchez, the man who crossed all three during one fateful Dia de Muertos.

And it's apparent enough that, although this framing device is useful for dumping a whole pot of exposition onto our heads, the necessity of it accrues not to Book of Life's narrative, as such, but to its aesthetic—and to the razor-sharp limitations of that aesthetic within Reel FX's technology.  For while the briefly-seen flesh-and-blood humans of the framing device are rendered roughly as convincingly as the toys in Toy Story, and while nobody ever gets any more credible from there, it kind of doesn't matter, because the ballad of Manolo is being told with little wooden puppets—oddly-proportioned puppets, at that, and of decidedly marginal articulation—and it's one hell of an ingenious cheat.  You can't mind too much that it looks like something animated in 1995, because on top of being merely charming, it actually does manage to come off as integral to the storytelling.  It may in fact be the only case in history of objectively "bad" 3D animation working for a CG cartoon's visuals, rather than against them.

But that plot.  So: in the town of San Angel, there are the two men, childhood friends Manolo and Jaoquin.  The former is a sensitive artist, who yearns to be a musician, though his family has groomed him for the family business—and, yes, that sound you hear is Coco ripping this movie off pretty much wholesale, although in this instance, the family business is rad bullfighting, not a boring shoe factory.  Meanwhile, Jaoquin has grown up strong and arrogant in the shadow cast by the statue of his dead father in the town square, striving always to be as great a military hero as he.  Both men have long awaited the return of their childhood crush, the winsome and impetuous Maria; and now that she's back, they're naturally devoted to making total asses out of themselves in their respective bids to win her heart.

Manolo still has the better of it—for though he wins only disapproval from his family and the townsfolk by sparing the life of a bull, this has also gained him Maria's respect; and, for his part, Jaoquin has been little but a preening peacock, a strategy not well-calculated to impress a woman like Maria.  Yet what none of them know is that their whole lives have been watched by the Gods of Death, La Muerte, ruler of the joyful Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, ruler of the depressing Land of the Forgotten, and to these deities their romantic triangle is naught but the subject of a wager: if La Muerte's champion Manolo should win Maria's hand, then Xibalba must never again interfere in the affairs of humankind; but if Xibalba's chosen suitor Jaoquin marries her, then La Muerte must surrender her happy afterlife to him, and she can rule over the sad one for a change.

Thus it is no surprise that at the moment of Manolo's proposal, Xibalba is willing to cheat, inflicting a magical snakebite upon Maria and tricking Manolo into believing his love is dead.  He is, naturally, willing to offer the lad passage to the underworld—and, like a chump, the mortal takes it, and it's a little while before he discovers that Maria's not just not down there with him, she's gotten engaged to Jaoquin after all, and the new reigning monarch of the underworld isn't exactly prepared to help him out of his predicament.

But Manolo, unwilling to countenance an existence without his love, defies Xibalba and enlists the ghosts of his ancestors to accompany him on a grand mystical quest across all the realms of the dead to regain his life, and rescue Maria, in turn, from a politically-expedient marriage to a soldier she doesn't love, and from the bandit Chalka, who's spent decades searching for the magical artifact Xibalba gave Jaoquin all those years ago, which turns out to have been the secret source of his mighty heroic strength all this time.

There are a lot of moving parts to The Book of Life, then.  It's almost stuffed to overflowing with story (especially for a 95 minute movie), though that's one of its virtues—the constant unveiling of cool ideas that never actually get in the way of the appealing central characters, particularly the archetypal white knight represented by poor Manolo, who probably ought to be boring, but comes off, between the details of his fecklessness and Diego Garcia's warm, understated vocal performance, as a surprisingly engaging hero.  (Though, ironically, while the hero's journey belongs to Manolo, the one character in the film who experiences a proper arc turns out to be Jaoquin, who, for brevity's sake, can be summed up as "what Gaston from Beauty and the Beast would have been, were he written as an actual human being, instead of as a distraction from the gross sex villainy of the Beast.)

It helps immeasurably, of course, that the cool ideas are given life by even cooler visuals: between that museum framing narrative and its insistence on developing its characters before it kills its most important one, Book of Life starts off slowly and even a little awkwardly, but once it gets to the Lands of the Dead, it's little but impressive imagery—all the more impressive when you remember that Reel FX is one of the littlest fish in the big pond of American feature animation.  The character design I've already praised, but it is altogether wonderful, even if it means lousy animation (besides the obligatory stiffness of the "puppets," the gods tend to whoosh around on nothing—they don't even have feet—which I imagine simplified the process considerably, though it does at least feel appropriately divine).  But everyone looks awesome nonetheless, in ways both big and lovingly small: from La Muerte's La Catrina-inspired giant hat down to the amazing five o'clock shadows on the men, which reach all the way up to their eye sockets.  They look even better when they're dead, of course, peering out through black eyes with surprisingly-expressive glowing coals for pupils, from heads that don't (contra Coco) remind you that simply animating a skull with the usual tricks of the trade somewhat defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Yet the characters aren't even the best part of the design; that's the worlds beyond, credited to production designers Simon Varela and Paul Sullivan, inspired equally by calaveras art and Aztec iconography (or, possibly, the classic Commodore 64 platformer, Aztec Challenge).  Everything is so excellently monumental, particularly the looming creatures Manolo encounters on his way to resurrection; and director Jorge Gutierrez does a fantastic job of assembling it, with strong, symbolic cross-cutting from one realm to the other and imbuing a sense of grandeur to the whole proceeding.  It's as good as any action-adventure riff on the Orpheus myth could ever hope to be—glossed with a semi-cunning bowlderization of actual Aztec mythology—and it surely doesn't hurt anything that Manolo faces his final challenge not with his bullfighter's blade, but with his mariachi's guitar.

As intoxicatingly full of crazy details as it is, all of them are details that still feel of a piece.  (Or almost all, anyway: when Bandit King Chalka gets in on the third-act action, one is uncomfortably aware that he's a twenty foot-tall hulk with cybernetic arms.  I don't know what to say about this, except that the movie's been so rigorous with its magical nonsense up till now that it's earned one stupidly-kewl indulgence.)

Since it sounds like I'm describing something close to a modern animated masterpiece, and since you've probably guessed that a movie that faded as quickly as Book of Life probably isn't one, then you've probably also deduced that there must be some kind of problem.  And you'd be absolutely right.  There's two problems, really, though both come from the same place, and that of course is Book of Life's production as a movie for children in a post-Shrek age.  And thus is it suffused top to bottom with Dreamworks-style bullshit postmodernism: bafflingly-awful and instantly-dated pop cultural references (remember "Hey girl"?), on top of the obligatory weird celebrity casting going instantly off the rails.  And I don't even mean Channing Tatum, who's actually quite good as Jaoquin (and he mercifully avoids putting on an accent), but Ice Cube—and it is perfectly okay to ask "But why?" at this juncture.  I certainly did.  He is staggeringly miscast (and misdirected, and mis-written) as the Candlemaker, a.k.a. Yahweh, this film's token (but, I'll admit, appreciated) gesture toward some manner of syncretic Christianity.  (Amusingly enough, it probably makes it all-the-more overtly blasphemous.)  It's a pity, though, because naturally the Candlemaker is just one more instantly-likeable example of this film's beautiful design ethos.  But, even putting one's initial reluctance to equate "Ice Cube" with "genial and absentminded creator god" aside, the performance rapidly reaches "actively embarrassing" in its specifics.

On the other end of the "actively embarassing" spectrum, Book of Life is also a jukebox musical, because it is 2014, and it is a cartoon, so of course it is.  It is widely despised as such, though this is being a little unfair to it: because, for whatever little it's worth, its mariachi-style covers of such questionably-modern songs as Radiohead's "Creep" and Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" are, indeed, shockingly well-integrated into the setting, on top of being rather enchantingly lo-fi in their execution, sung by Luna himself.  (And I won't hear a word against the film's solid remix of Morricone's "L'estasi dell'oro," paired with a bullfight—even if remixing that song was always unlikely to be helpful.)  But then there's Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," which probably has no place anywhere outside of the mouth of its original singer—and, some would say, not even there.  Yet there are its pair of original songs, even loer-fi than the covers; and these are actually pretty good.

So the annoyances are hard to ignore in Book of Life—it may not be an unfunny film, but its too-goofy tone often jars terribly with its earnest register, wherein pagan gods come off as blithe to human existence, and a hero's struggles come off as legitimately mythic.  Its anachronistic jokes, of course, are simply death—and not the fun, Dia de Muertos kind of death.  And this sucks, because without its annoyances, it's practically unimpeachable.  Yet even with them, it's still perhaps the best mid-budget animated title of the 2010s, and in a fairer world, this movie would have made at least as much over the course of its whole theatrical run as that new Pixar one did, in one damn weekend.

Score: 8/10


  1. I think I was much kinder toward Coco than you ended up being, but I'm SO glad you're making moves to fix the horrendous crime the critical community has committed against The Book of Life, which is a movie I love wholeheartedly.

    And while Coco did better at avoiding whitewashing, which is a HUGE problem in movies like this, Channing Tatum WAS terrific, as he is most times he's allowed to get the comedy lead out.

    Plus, I didn't have to listen to Olaf ONCE when I saw this movie.

    1. Which is assuredly a plus.

      On the whitewashing front, at least this one had a Mexican director. Whose name I misspelled. Oops.

      Which did you like better, though, this or Coco? Sounds like Book of Life, but I oughtn't presume.

    2. Yeah, I'd say I like Book of Life better, but I did enjoy both very much.

      And Coco has a Mexican co-director, so that's SOMEthing? I mean, it reeks of an in-name-only credit to get some diversity in there, but he's very handsome so I'm happy to see him in all the promotional materials.