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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Book of Life

Age of Ultron isn't the only new release worth checking out, after all.

Oh, also, one thing I didn't mention in my review is that the soundtrack is pretty damn great, as it reworks a bunch of new and old pop songs into Mariachi numbers - with Radiohead's Creep being a particular delight. I go on a bit about the film's awesome visuals but make no mistake, the soundscape is just as important in creating the overall effect.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Monolo and Joaquin are childhood friends fighting over the same girl but when supernatural beings make a bet on the outcome of their (usually) friendly rivalry, this love triangle becomes a struggle between life-and-death itself.

What we thought

The Book of Life with its fixation on death (as a kid in the film says: “what is it with Mexicans and death!”) and its overpoweringly twisted visuals is probably not for for very young or highly sensitive kids but for anyone with even the slightest taste for the ghoulish, it's an absolute delight.

The plot itself has the elegant simplicity of a folk tale Рit's literally presented this way, in fact Рbut the actual story is easily the least compelling aspect of the whole thing. Indeed, taken on paper, the story, the characters and the themes are all very familiar, if not outright clich̩, but it's how they're presented that truly wows.

The film is, first and foremost, both very sweet (ghoulishness and all) and very, very funny. The gags come thick and fast and they come in all forms – from subtle sight gags to an almost bawdy sense of slapstick. Some jokes did work better for me than others – I've never been a fan of the stock dumb character (see: Joey from friends) and this film is no exception – but the film is so packed with humour that even a one-in-two hit rate makes it far, far funnier than most modern comedies.

It's also ironic, if not entirely unexpected, that a film this obsessed with death is so life-affirming and its recurrent themes of the importance of following your own path in life is nicely handled. The Book of Life (the title, incidentally, is a concession to the studio who refused to run a kids film with a title like Day of the Dead or even its original title, El Matador, but is oddly fitting nonetheless) may have a twisted sense of humour but it has a big heart.

The best thing about The Book of Life though is its wonderfully colourful, highly stylised and just plain beautiful visuals. From the desolate Land of the Forgotten to the vividly carnival-esque Land of the Dead, the film is overstuffed with visual detail and colour, while its marrionette-like character design is delightfully unreal. It also looks and feels very, very Mexican – albeit a more mythical Mexico than the one we're used to seeing on screen.

The film also features an impressive voice cast that were clearly cast for their talent, rather than their bankability, with big names like Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum are outnumbered by more idiosyncratic voice actors like Ron Perlman and a whole host of better-known and lesser-known Hispanic actors. The film is also helmed by Mexican talent, including producer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) and director Jorge R Guiterrez so, both behind and in front of the camera, it certainly feels authentically Mexican. And that's not even taking into account the film's Spanish-language version either!

It doesn't particularly matter your age, if you enjoyed similarly twisted animated fare like Paranorman or the classic '90s Lucasarts adventure game, Grim Fandango, The Book of Life is a real must-see delight. But please, all you parents out there, do not ignore that Parental Guidance warning if you have particularly sensitive kids – even if France, Canada and the UK have given the film All-Age passes, I can easily imagine some kids being totally wigged out by this.

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