Monday, October 20, 2014

The Book of Life

That I often wind up seeing animated movies on Saturday morning isn't something I ever planned as a nostalgic return to how I spent weekends as a kid; it's just that I like 3D but have issues with paying fifteen bucks or more for a movie. So, I hit the pre-noon shows, which are currently seven bucks plus a four-dollar 3D surcharge. Gotta be thrifty.

I do lament the end of Saturday morning cartoons, even though it's the sort of thing I make the effort to not oversentimentalize. Twenty years ago, I loved what Fox and the WB were programming on Saturday mornings - including Earthworm Jim by Book of Life co-writer Doug Langdale - and found myself envying the kids who would think that this is the baseline for how good cartoons were supposed to be. They weren't so good in the 1980s, as I discovered to my horror when the DVDs for the first season of Transformers came out.

The switch to cable came later, and that's when cartoons sort of left me behind. As much as I like the idea of how Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon giving much the creators of the animated series much more room to execute their own visions than used to be the case, I actually tended not to like a lot of the individual visions; it got weird and grotesque on me. I blame Ren & Stimpy, with folks chasing very bizarre designs and quirky-to-the-point-of-random characterization.

The Book of Life has some of that (those noses really bugged me), so it's not really for me. Still, even if I'm inclined to grumble a bit because kids aren't experiencing animation the way I did (which was great at the time), I certainly never got much this stylishly daring or smartly multicultural, and I kind of thing that that's because the three networks programming four hours a week just didn't have room for it.

The Book of Life (2014)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2014 in Regal Fenway #9 (first-run, RealD 3D)

The Saturday morning cartoon block officially became a thing of a past this fall, although every obituary has mentioned that television now has more animation than ever; it just migrated to syndication and then cable. What emerged was a different sort of cartoon, more irreverent and as likely to reflect an individual creator's aesthetic as a company's house style (which, as a side-effect, often makes them more authentically multicultural). The Book of Life is that progression making its way to theaters, a high-energy animated adventure with style and a big-screen voice cast.

It tells the story of a bet between the rulers of Mexico's two afterlives - La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman) of the Land of the Forgotten - over whether Manolo (voice of Diego Luna), the scion of a family of bullfighters who would rather play guitar, or mustachioed soldier Joaquin (voice of Diego Luna) will marry the general's daughter Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana). Though unaware of the bet, Maria isn't exactly thrilled that people are thinking of her as a prize; and that's not all: Xibalba intends to tilt the odds in his favor by sending Manolo to the land of the dead, and a dangerous outlaw seeks the magic medal which makes Joaquin invulnerable.

This is bookended and occasionally interrupted by a museum tour guide (voice of Christina Applegate) telling the story to a group of American kids, and while there are a few amusing gags that come from breaking it up that way, other reasons are probably more important: Explaining the Day of the Dead and other bits of Mexican mythology to those who don't know them, giving the younger members of the audience a chance to settle down and see their feelings reflected onscreen after characters are [apparently] killed by snakebites, or providing an in-story reason for why the characters look like wooden toys. It's kind of cute, but also a bit of a distraction from the main story that the audience really cares about - especially since the style contrast is more "wood versus plastic" than "real vs dolls".

Full review at EFC.

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