Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Book of Life: An Extensive Assessment

Meet the incredibly wooden characters... yeah, you knew that pun was coming.

It really, really pains me to do this, because this movie SHOULD'VE been an awesome, quirky, dark but fun children's movie with an intricate and beautifully crafted world. I was definitely expecting more. In my How to Train Your Dragon 2 review, I predicted that it would be better than people expected. Well, it... wasn't.

Rotten Tomatoes' little description reads like this: "The Book of Life's gorgeous animation is a treat, but it's a pity that its story lacks the same level of craft and detail that its thrilling visuals provide."

Unfortunately, the reviews on the movie go into just about as much detail. I've read all of the rotten reviews, and they barely scratched the SURFACE of why this movie is a complete disaster. For every good thing, there's a bad thing, much like a certain celebration full of festivities and sugar skulls that constantly reminds you that someone you loved died.

Of course, I'm going to analyze every single aspect of this train-wreck and that means SPOILER ALERT.

Now without any further blabbing, let's start the fiesta, (more like the siesta), that is The Book of Life.

The story is actually the least of this movie's problems. I have no complaints about a simple romance story with an underworld twist. Simple is usually better, (the "usually" I put in that sentence is worth an entirely different discussion. Maybe some other time). I actually really like the premise, a good director could get a lot of mileage out of it. Just look at Corpse Bride, which is basically the same story and equally as visually appealing. I don't LOVE Corpse Bride but it's not the shot to the frontal lobe this atrocity is, so clearly they did something right. Anyway, note that I said GOOD director. I know it's the Jorge Gutierrez's first project, and Guillermo probably wanted his style to shine through, but that was total misstep. There's no doubt in my mind that if Del Toro had directed this flick than it would've been much quirkier, much smarter, more fun, and funnier then it turned out. But enough ranting out of context, here's why this movie misfires every step of the way.


~ THE ANIMATION ~

I know "the animation" is the first thing anyone will praise about this movie, but what they're talking about is the visual element. I'm talking about the movements of the characters and how long the camera stays still. It's incredibly distracting how every character whips their limbs around faster than Johnny Test on Monster Energy. The camera doesn't linger very long on anything, either. Watching it in 3D was stressful. I think my eyes crossed during the second act because of how much was being shoved in my face.

I guess the movie doesn't trust its dialogue to carry a scene with subtlety and depth in the animated movements of the characters, (and with good reason, but I'll get to that in a moment), instead relying on the old: "Kids like action. All. The. Time," mantra. The weird thing is that the movement is inconsistent, but always distracting. Sometimes they'll be whipping about, during comedic moments or action fights scenes, in which case my eyes can barely register what's going on. Other times, they'll move like the story's taking place on the Moon. They look floaty and weightless, in other words.
Check out this scene for an illustration of that, and pay attention to the moment where Manolo and Joaquin are fighting.


Like I said earlier, for every bad thing there's a good thing. In this case, that would be the visuals, which ARE extremely well lit, composed, designed, etc. etc. I do have an issue with the textures though. If I said I bought that these characters were made of real wood I'd be lying, so I guess the aim was puppets as guideline, fun design as the rule. Sometimes a surface will look really, really... computer-y to me. But the majority of audiences won't notice.



~ THE SCRIPT ~

Oh yes, the script. That little thing. My guess is that the visual style was the thing the movie was made for, because if you gave me this script and told me to pay you to make a movie out of it, I'd laugh in your face. And fire you.

This is the most pander-y, boring, unfunny, offensive, hypocritical script I've ever had the privilege of despising. What makes it worse is that kids won't care. They'll watch the movie and think "Wow! That was just as good as The Lego Movie!" Well, it's your opinion, hypothetical child, but I disagree with every fiber of my soul. I cringed so many times during this movie. I thought I was cured. I thought I could handle kid's movies now. I only cringed once during How to Train Your Dragon 2! Oh wait, sorry, did I just compare that script to this? My mistake. In my review of that particular movie, I chided the movie's insistence on "Oh yeah!"s and "Woo-hoo!"s. I'll take them over this movie's forced energetics and bland self-aware, reference-based humor.

It reminds me of the only thing I didn't like in The Lego Movie, which were some of it's less-than stellar jokes. In fact, they actually stole a joke from The Lego Movie when Manolo falls in the Land of the Remembered sequence. Basically, this kind of humor is what I call "Listless Awkward Antics And Manic Energy", which I will acronym to simply "LAAAME". Though that pretty much speaks for itself in regards to my opinion about this type of humor, let me describe why I hate it.

1. It excludes adults.
This kind of humor is so pandering, so dumb, and so hard to sit through that unless you're a "World's Number One Dad"-type I can't picture anyone over the age of seven enjoying it. This wouldn't be a problem if the movie was Carebears and made nothing but safe jokes that are clearly aimed at kids, but this movie has lots of adult jokes, some subtle, some not so much, so this is completely inexcusable. It's two extremes, there's no middle ground. One second there are men drooling over women, the next, meme references "cleverly" disguised with spastic animation. As someone who believes that children's films, especially animation, should be as smart, daring and interesting as adult films, this comes off as pathetic and irritating.

2. It's hard to laugh at unabashedly.
Like I said, unless you have no inhibitions, this humor won't work at all for you. You need smart jokes to balance the dumb jokes in order to not look like an idiot. As much as I don't like Dumb and Dumber, I know there are jokes in there that would make me laugh. The smart stuff and the dumb stuff is properly balanced. This is just high-fructose energy with no funny to back it up. It's the humor equivalent of a beggar in the street yelling random words at objects, in other words, it's more sad than amusing.

3. It has a wearing effect on the viewer.
Have you ever eaten only one thing for a month, like cereal or Chinese take-out? This humor is shallow, grating, and isn't diverse. There's no rest from the slog. It just keeps punching you in the face.

Can I find it in my heart to forgive the humor? Surely, there are people who enjoy it. Actually, at the screening I attended, there were kids genuinely laughing at some of the jokes. So why can't I let it slide? Because of one simple thing. It was CONFUSING.

The setting was ancient Mexico. The framing device, (which I'll get to in a second), established the story as being an old story, so all these modern day references felt extremely out of place. It's a classic example of sacrificing character-based humor for shallow gags.


~ THE GOD-AWFUL FRAMING DEVICE ~


The film opens in Mexico, just before the denizens of a little village begin to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The film's unique style of wooden characters is elegantly presented. The film trusts audiences to adjust to the style of the movie, without having to explain why anyone is made of wood. After all, did A Bug's Life need to explain why the characters were all bugs? Of course not. Audiences are smart. Kids don't care. Everyone's happy.

What? Who are we kidding?! American audiences don't understand that!! Let's add the gratuitous framing device of a field trip! Yes, because if there's anything kids want to see, it's an educational trip to the museum. Why, they won't have ever experienced that before! I'm so glad the magic of cinema stepped in, to highlight something we didn't even know we were missing. Romance? Adventure? They can't educate anyone!

Yeah, you know a children movie's script is bad when it panders to the parents. There's no reason to have this framing device. It ruins everything. The opening scene is supposed to set a tone for the entire movie. Apparently the tone of this movie is America Learns About Mexico, by the Education Agency.

For an example of a framing device gone right, see Princess Bride. When you look at the facts, these framing devices accomplish the same things, basically.

• They let the audience avatar step out of the story, to let the characters be characters without having to additionally take on the role of audience avatar.
• They allow for ironic/self-aware/lampshaded commentary on the events in the story being framed.
• They involve a grown-up telling a story to a kid, perhaps inspiring real life parents to do the same.
• They both end with a moral.

The reason why one sucks the life from the story and the other elevates it is because The Book of Life's framing device fails on every single point.

The Book of Life's audience avatars are nothing BUT avatars. The movie doesn't care about them, and you shouldn't either. Princess Bride's, on the other hand, are endearing and relatable. I think one of the reasons why the framing device characters appall me might be because they're clearly not having fun, and it's covered up by just making them talk really fast and energetically. Perhaps they're faking their enthusiasm. Anything to interrupt the terrible story.

The Book of Life's commentary is abysmal. These kids don't have any insight into what's happening. Why should I care what they have to say? It doesn't help that their characters are inconsistent. Why is that kid wearing a punk outfit and spikes scared of death and blood? You subverted the wrong expectation, movie! I guess it would've worked if he'd been a bit sensitive, but because of this movie's "Dial It Up" brand of LAAAME he violently overreacts to everything instead.

There's one little joke that works, which is that at one point he says something along the lines of, "What's up with all the death?! We're just kids!" I like how self-aware that is. But one joke doesn't save this shoddy framework. Why is Princess Bride's commentary better? For the same reason that that one little joke worked: because it's primarily character-based, with a pinch of irony. The kid in Princess Bride doesn't like romance. That's ironic, because he's in a romance movie. The kid in The Book of Life doesn't like death, which is ironic because he's in a movie about the Day of the Dead.

The Book of Life's teacher/student dynamic is disgustingly polished-apple saccharine, not to mention offensive. One of the kids keeps talking about how pretty the teacher is. Guess the animators needed an ego boost. I'm not familiar with Christina Applegate's body of work, so I don't know how much talent is being wasted, but I recognize her name so that's worth something. This part feels like it was written for a no-name voice actor. Anybody could've done it. What a waste of star power. It doesn't help that this teacher is written like a clerk at Hannaford's: "Good morning class, please proceed to the 14 items or fewer line." Compare Princess Bride's dynamic, which is grandfather/grandchild. It's not often explored, and the movie's excellent writing gives us a good reason to keep returning to the frame: it's just as witty and interesting as the rest of the movie.*

I'm not sure who would be inspired to read a story to their kids after The Book of Life. I mean, it's inspiring to a teacher, but not parents. The dynamic is just so impersonal. There's almost a visible boundary between the teacher and the students. The kids are kids and the teacher is a teacher. This isn't about bonding. This isn't about friendship. It's cold and professional.

Finally, there's the moral. How incredibly tacked on it feels. "Be Yourself". Yeah, so what?! That kind of moral is like telling me killing is bad! Oh wait, THEY DID! I wouldn't care if it was subtle, or if the movie showed HOW to be yourself, or WHY killing is bad, but of course they don't do that. Instead, I get the moral shoved in my face throughout the movie, and the one-dimensional main character constantly TELLS me how unsure of himself he is instead of BEING unsure of himself. He says he doesn't want to kill bulls when bullfighting. Oh, okay, so you're going to solve conflicts peacefully, right? Well, we sort of get that. At the end of the second act, Manolo faces off against a giant bull, and then gets him to back down by singing a sappy pop song on an acoustic guitar. Right afterwords, the characters fight a huge battle. What was the message again? Something about resolving conflict through - oh, never mind, FIGHT FIGHT ACTION TIMMMEEE!!!

*By the way, I know that there are some people who don't like Princess Bride. You still can't deny that it's extremely quotable. I didn't like Anchorman, but I can't deny the thousands of people typing "That escalated quickly" on the internet right now.

~ THE VOICE ACTING ~

As I said before, the movie tries and fails to blend tradition with a modern twist, which unfortunately once again leads to a comparison with How to Train Your Dragon 2. I don't like the Americanized Vikings idea. It sucks. You know what? I forgive it. At least it's consistent. For some reason the voice actors can't decide whether to go with full-on Mexican accents or go with "modern", which for some reason means "American". Some of them even switch accents halfway through sentences! Aren't you glad that a Mexican movie, made by Mexicans, about Mexicans, with Mexican themes, about a Mexican holiday, stars... Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman and Christina Applegate? Go Mexico!
At least Deigo Luna's in this, that's all I have to say.

~ THE MUSIC ~

Ugh, electronic music? What an unpleasant surprise. Oh and, thanks for ruining "Just a Friend" for me. I thought that was an original song, (and therefore an original joke), when I first heard it in the trailer. You know what the worst part is? The majority of the audience will too.

The music also rips off a lot of other scores, and as such, has no life of its own. I found out recently that Jessica's theme from Who Framed Roger Rabbit was improvised by a jazz band. How cool would it have been to have had The Book of Life's score improvised by a mariachi band?

~ THE OVERWORLD CHARACTERS ~


Manolo is your average loner. Except he's in an annoying comic relief band so I don't understand how he's alone, but anyway, his main motivation is this girl, Maria, (who needs a whole section of this review for herself, I'll get to it in a minute). He's also a bullfighter who doesn't want to kill the bull at the end of the fight. Oh, and he has some boring daddy issues. I guess my main problem with him is that he's as bland and corny as a corn tortilla. His approach to romance is simple: sing pop songs and light candles. His personality is The Hapless Lover. Wait, isn't that his motivation? Ha ha, of course it is, this movie doesn't care about giving our main protagonist a personality, even though the framing device sure as Underworld allowed it by already including an audience surrogate.


Joaquin is manly and boasts all the time. The ironic thing is, I think he's more deserving of Maria than Manolo. He constantly talks about himself, so what? At least he's honest! And just because he WANTS Maria in the kitchen doesn't mean she HAS to go there, because she's disobedient, remember? And who knows, maybe without the medal, he'd have learned some humility and lost that particular flaw. He saved Manolo's life without considering his own! I think that shows a step in the right direction.


Carlos Sanch├ęz is the disapproving father who wishes Manolo would kill the bull. There's not much else there, really. Apparently the sequel's going to focus on Carlos and Manolo, but given what I've seen of them is this movie, I'm not looking forward to it at all.


The Pig is a mascot character who should've acted as Maria's confidant, but instead he gets ugly and sidelined after the flashback's over because Maria is so one-dimensional that she doesn't have thoughts or feelings to express.


Chakal is this well-designed bandit guy who gets introduced at the end for the big battle. He's just as one-dimensional as everyone else but at least he's fun to look at.

~ THE UNDERWORLD CHARACTERS ~


La Muerte is actually pretty cool. Basically what Maria should've been. Nice relationship with Xibalba. They're honestly the only part of this movie that completely works.


Xibalba's design is a bit confusing. Why is his neck glowing? But I like the skull pupils and he has a great voice, thanks to Mr. Perlman.


The Candle Maker is a horrid black stereotype. It disturbs me to think that kids were meant to find this funny. Not cool, movie.


There are two cousins of Manolo's that he meets in the Underworld who I thought were pretty cool, at least until they started talking like Valley Girls. Why couldn't the story have been about them? Wasted opportunity.


~ I JUST MET A GIRL NAMED MARIA ~


Okay, so the whole plot of this movie revolves around Maria, basically. And that's where the trouble starts. She's completely boring! She's "read books". Okay, which books? She knows "how to fence". Then why is she using a sword and not a foil?!

As far as I can tell, the whole point is to protect the hand, not to look fancy.

The movie may have been well intentioned by including a feminist message, but it doesn't come off that way. The reason is that it's clearly not a feminist movie. The whole story is centered around a love triangle where the only people benefiting are men. Maria doesn't get anything out of a relationship with Manolo or Joaquin, they're both idiots! One brags about himself all the time, and the other pretends to care by singing sappy love songs! Neither of them actually spend time talking with Maria, or getting to know her. They're just high off a childhood crush, without any consideration as to who she is in the present. It's deeply ironic that the film makes a point about how only talking about yourself is wrong, when it never shows an alternative.

The fact that both the guys are idiots ruins the main focus of the movie — the romance. The pursuit of Maria has zero tension because I hate Manolo just as much as I hate Joaquin. Neither of them deserve Maria, frankly. In fact, they repulsed me so much I half expected Maria to walk off with some other guy entirely. Then, at the end of the movie, when Joaquin saves Manolo's worthless life, and I knew they were still going to have Manolo end up with Maria, I was incredibly disappointed. The movie clearly wanted me to want those two together, but it didn't work at all for me.

This movie would have been less offensive if it had unabashedly offered a love story with two idiotic men, and an idiotic women who they both loved. That way, it's all evenly dealt. Or, they could've made Manolo more intelligent, to connect to Maria on an intellectual level. Instead, it says "We have a strong female character! But don't worry, she doesn't do much and, deep down inside she's just the same weakling all women are." Yeah, check those little boxes, Mr. Executive.

• A few poop jokes for the kiddies, shoved in the beginning there so we get that PG rating taken care of. √
• Lots of yelling. √
• Blah blah moral blah blah true to yourself or whatever. √
• Blah blah female doesn't want to be in the kitchen. √
• Oh, now that we've said that we're allowed to have some men drool over her as a joke, haha! √

This doesn't just tick me off, it's also degrading to the character. This was the final nail in the coffin for me, and that's the main reason why everything leading up to this point has been negatively flavored. To get something so integral to the movie so wrong is unforgivable.

~ SO WHAT DID I LIKE? ~

I always save the positive stuff for last, it's like a dessert after a toxic waste main course. It softens the blow dealt by earlier attacks to the body. And there is some positive stuff to be had.

Xibalba and La Muerte have a good dynamic. I like their love/hate relationship. Also, even if I didn't like how Xibalba and La Muete were constantly teleporting around, it was still fun to see the poofing effect. There was also a very funny morbid joke that Xibalba made in the cemetery.

The film has a bunch of lame moral messages, but there was one that was important, which was the anti bull killing message. Apparently that's a real problem in Mexico.

There was a scene at the end where Manolo's family helped him climb up to a church's roof that I found very touching. There was also some religious symbolism going on, not only there, but also through the presence of a bunch of nuns, who were the only funny running gag in the film.

The visuals are very striking. This is probably what blinded most of the film's critics to the flaws. Either they didn't care or thought it was just light entertainment for kids and didn't make a big deal out of it. Well, I'm Sadly Thoughtful, and, sadly, I think about these things a lot. If something about this film was irking you and you didn't know what it was, maybe I've shed some light on it. That was the point of this review.

I don't want to see this film again, but if I did, I might be able to enjoy it a little more now that I've ranted about it. I understand that this film has fans, as does everything that looks pretty. But sometimes you have to go deeper than surface.

And there is one last good thing I have to say about this movie, which is that it's plot is fairly complex, which I like a great deal. In fact, it's what I wish I could say about Big Hero 6, but that's another review...

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