It’s a Hero’s Journey…Isn’t It?

So I finally buckled down and went to see The Book of Life.

The trailer had me intrigued, mostly for its absolutely gorgeous animation and a plot revolving around your traditional epic hero storyline and the Day of the Dead.

It looked like a good movie, the kind of movie that you can get lost in for a few hours and come away with a satisfied feeling in your body.

It’s a shame then, for me anyways, that this was not the case for The Book of Life.

In the trailer you are introduced to the main players of the game:

~ La Muerte, the female spirit who rules the Land of the Remembered, a spirit world where the spirit of those who have passed are remembered and therefore get to live in a world full of color and happiness.

~Xibalba, the male spirit who rules the Land of the Forgotten, the other spirit world where those who have passed are forgotten and live in a world of gloom and depression and eventually waste away into a grey dust.

~Manolo, our hero of the story

~Joaquín, Manolo’s best friend

~María, the love interest of the boys

Being mischievous spirits as all spirits tend to be, La Muerte bets that Manolo will marry María, while Xibalba bets on Joaquín. Once Xibalba realizes that he is going to lose the bet, he evens the playing board to his advantage and sends Manolo to the Land of the Remembered, courtesy of a snake bite.

Once there, Manolo asks La Muerte to help him reunite with Maria and Xibalba promises to help as well, saying that if Manolo “completes these tasks” he will see Maria again.

Cue montage snippets of Manolo fighting his way back to Maria. Which sets you up for your typical complete-these-tasks-movie-hero-and-you-will-get-your-happily-ever-after storyline.

When you go into a movie with the storyline pretty much spelled out, all you have left to wonder about is how the animators are going to pull this off, what are the tasks going to be, is there going to be some sort of twist, etc. etc. etc.

The outcome here fell a bit short of my expectations.

First off, the plot device of two men fighting over one woman:

We meet Manolo, Maria and Joaquin as kids. They are best friends, tight like the 3 Musketeers. However, it’s completely obvious that Maria is in love with Manolo and Manolo is in love with Maria. This makes Joaquin’s pursuit of her a superficial plot point, even to the character himself expressed by his crestfallen face when Maria lightly rebuffs him again and again.

There is a point in the movie where I thought that it was going to get good. Like really good. Like what I was expecting from the movie. Maria and Manolo meet out on the edge of their small town to profess their love for each other. Realizing he is going to lose his bet with La Muerte, Xibalba sends a snake along to mess things up. Maria is bitten and she dies in Manolo’s arms.

Okay, cool, I thought, Manolo is going to sacrifice himself to get to the Land of the Remembered and then they’re going to have to find each other in the other realms.

(I mean, that’s what I would’ve done with the story..)

Manolo does just that, seeking out Xibalba and asking to die. Xibalba’s snake-staff bites Manolo and he dies.

Except Maria isn’t really dead. She’s just in a trance, and is easily woken by a kiss from Joaquin.

Okay I’ll give them that, I decided, So now Manolo gets to make his epic hero journey back to the love of his life.

But the tasks that Manolo has to face to be reunited with Maria aren’t set up by Xibabla, who is portrayed as the main villain in the trailer, and the tasks themselves aren’t that hard to overcome. It would have been more interesting if there was one task for each realm.

But:

What the movie lacks in plot it makes up for in animation. The Book of Life is definitely one of the more gorgeous animated movies I’ve seen in a long time. Reel FX Animation Studios isn’t a big name but whoever works there is talented beyond compare.

All of the characters have this puppet-like form to them. You can see each crease and crevice where joints and muscles are supposed to bend. When Manolo reaches the Land of the Remembered, he becomes a skeleton. His bones float together and the pupils of his eyes turn from brown to a bright yellow-orange light.

My favorite character design was that of Xibalba. Supposedly made of out of tar and other nasty things, Xibalba had black wings with skewed feathers and a feathered body. His smile was reminiscent of your typical Jack-o-Lantern and his pupils were red skulls. Yeah. Red skulls. They bounced around with every movement of his head.

Over at the movie’s website, there’s what looks to be original sketches and production artwork. Jorge Gutierrez, the co-writer and director of the movie, stated in an interview that he wanted the movie to look exactly like the gorgeous production designs.

And that one decision, I think, made The Book of Life a visually-appealing movie that makes up for what could have been an epic hero’s journey.

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