The Book of Life is a good movie and one that I recommend. Before I get into a more in-depth exploration of my thoughts on the movie, take that away from the top. The movie has some problems, but they aren’t insurmountable and only distracting in retrospect. We’ll start with the negatives first.
There’s one big problem with The Big of Life. There’s simply too much plot going on in this film. There is easily enough here for two or three movies, and while the over-stuffed plot manages to not be distracting, it does short change each of these elements. This could best be illustrated by asking what is the central conflict and theme at work here. Is it a love story? Is it about learning to be true to yourself? Is it about the temptations of power? The strength of the common people to rise up against bullies? Respect for the dead (and our past, by extension)? Finding the courage to struggle against impossible odds to overcome incredible obstacles? Animal cruelty? Family?
Yes. It’s about all these things.
That’s a lot to cram into a story. Especially an all-ages story. The reason I tend to enjoy all-ages media is that, when done right, it seeks to simplify storytelling, to cut right to the heart of what makes a story work. Book goes the opposite way, accidentally or intentionally piling on a number of themes that, while not quite getting in each others’ ways, don’t do each other any favors.
The love story could work on its own. Or the journey through the underworld. Or the journey out of the underworld. Or the struggle against banditos who threaten the town. And so on and so on.
In addition, there’s a completely superfluous framing device where the story is being told by a narrator to a group of children. I don’t know why this was put in. Perhaps it is there to justify the visuals of the movie or to have the narrator simply tell the audience what the stakes are. It smacks of focus grouped nonsense, an over-explanation and justification for things we don’t need. The story could be told via its puppet aesthetics without having to explain why it chooses to do so. And there’s a great underestimation of the audience to stop and tell the audience why a plot point or scene is important. These could be removed entirely and the movie would definitely be stronger for it.
But in the end, I still think this is a very good movie, mostly because of its unique visual experience and some interesting design choices. The most obvious and compelling are its wooden puppet aesthetic. All the characters resemble puppets. Except for the bandit king, who actually looks as if he’s made of iron. Being a fantastic version of the real world, the characters and their world is full of amazing life. From the land of the living to the lands of the dead, this film is a visual feast.
Furthermore, the Mexican musical flavor is sprinkled throughout. The story’s choice to use mainstream pop songs could be disappointing, but by taking the familiar and tweaking them with a Mexican spice, it manages to be both familiar and new at once.
Visually and musically, this film is a unique marvel. It has way too many stories going on at once, but they aren’t too distracting. A story edit would’ve ended up with a stronger film, but what they ended up with was good and well worth our time. Highly recommended.