This movie could have been something fresh and unique in an environment that is increasingly dominated by sub-par animated movies for kids, but instead seems to exemplify the problems these movies tend to have.
I tend not to be ashamed of my love of animated movies. Not always, but in general, an animated movie doesn't take itself too seriously, and I'm more likely to be engaged with a film like that then a drama, or Oscar-bait style of movie, which, not always, but in general, tries too damn hard to make me feel feelings. I also think that a lot of what we consider "movies for kids" are really just "movies for anybody". There wasn't an age that I turned when suddenly I stopped liking good stories and engaging characters and instead just wanted to see...whatever it is adults are supposed to like (boobs and taxes?)
Unfortunately, The Book of Life is pretty decisively a movie for kids. There was a lot of things that I was looking forward to seeing in this film, and the things that I was expecting did not disappoint. First, I knew that it was being produced by Del Toro, and if you've read my blog for, like, more than two days, you know that I have a gigantic crush on him as a director. He is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of movies in that he mixes the familial and personal with the historical and political, while at the same time indulging in fantasy that can genuinely be said to be unique. The Book of Life is, in a lot of ways, in the same vein as Del Toro's movies, in that it is unabashedly pro-Mexico ("the center of the universe" as it proclaimed in the movie, showing Mexico covering the entire planet and wearing a handlebar mustache) and very much flirting with unique styles and playfully macabre elements.
I should mention that the character design is outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. Not only is each character intricately designed in a style reminiscent of traditional Mexican garb, but each character is made to look like a wooden doll. Well, actually, the human characters in the story are wooden dolls, while the gods and the human characters in the frame story are designed to look like actual people. I wasn't sure if the dolls were made to resemble something in Mexican culture that I'm not aware of (I vaguely recall learning about the Day of the Dead in elementary and how people celebrating would make skeleton puppets. I wonder if the characters were intentionally designed to look like that, but I might be stretching.) The "wooden doll" look of the characters also serves to emphasize the "legend" aspect of the tale being told. In other words, what you're seeing on the screen is not a real person, nor is it a real event; it is an invented fabrication of a myth being told. Considering that the design team took great care in delineating between which characters look like puppets and which do not, this signifies to me that it was a conscious decision, and so I hope that there was a reason behind it.
Another cool thing that I admired was the style of music used. I'm not up on my pop music, but I believe they took modern songs and covered them in a more traditionally Mexican (a lot of acoustic guitar, I guess) style. I would actually say that the placement of music in the film broke any kind of momentum that the story has going for it, and I can't say that I particularly liked any of the songs, but I really do admire the filmmakers for making a decision as creative as this.
It sucks to see a movie that had so much going for it aesthetically and stylistically fail so hard in the scripting and dialogue. Somewhere, someone decided that movie just couldn't be a movie if we didn't have every single character making cliched jokes all the time. You have about two characters in the entire film discussing things earnestly and dozens more who exist only to jump in to make an exclamation or say something objectively dumb. I want to be clear here, my complaint is not that there are a few jokes that fall flat, or a few jokes that are aimed at amusing a younger audience, it is that the movie is seemingly nothing but the "fall down and go ouchie" type of humor coupled with very lazily written "jokes". I couldn't think of any examples off the type of my head, but IMDb provided me with one "I'm allergic to dying! Especially in the face!" Somebody got paid to write that, wrote it, saw it in their little MS word document, and decided that it was the best thing that could be written at that time.
In the end, I can't recommend this film, but it's painful to do so. There are a few great things here, and I hope they fire the writer and keep the same crew together to make a different movie.
1) Well made? - Pretty standard quality for an animated film these days
2) Contributed? - I honestly think that the "puppet style" mixed with traditional Mexican motifs was a unique thing, as well as the "Mexicanized" cover songs
3) Good time? - I could not wait for this movie to just be over already
4) Watch again? - Definitely not
5) Worth it? - Probably not. You heard the idea about the Mexican cover songs, and you can see stills of the character design online. That should be enough.
6) Who should watch this? - Maybe people with kids? I imagine children might like this film, but I'm an elementary school teacher so I have no idea what children like.