The Book of Life movie review: what’s a woman for?

The Book of Life yellow light

The animation is fresh, unique, and gorgeous. But we don’t need another tale of a man having exciting adventures while a woman waits around to marry him.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The animation, a CGI explosion of Mexican folkloric motifs, is fresh, unique, and gorgeous, if the design is at times so frenetic and overstuffed that it threatens sensory overload. The story the animation is used to tell, however, is so familiar as to be blandly generic, and totally unsurprising in both its overarching themes and its specific details.

Two deities who oversee realms of the afterlife — La Muerte (the voice of Kate del Castillo), who rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (the voice of Ron Perlman: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Pacific Rim), who rules the Land of the Forgotten — place a bet (“the greatest wager in history”!) over which literally square-jawed mountain of manhood pretty Maria (the voice of Zoe Saldana: Guardians of the Galaxy, Out of the Furnace) will take as a husband; the outcome of the bet will determine whether the deities switch realms or not. Will she choose sensitive Manolo (the voice of Diego Luna: Elysium, Contraband), whose father is pushing him to go into the family business of bullfighting but who would rather be a musician? Or will she choose lunkheaded Joaquin (the voice of Channing Tatum: 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie), who dreams of vanquishing enemies on a battlefield?

If you imagined that the fact that Maria’s decision will impact the entire afterlife would mean her story is the centerpiece here, oh, you don’t know today’s Hollywood at all. Maria is present only to be pretty and to support the journey of the man who will eventually win her as a prize. Maria is barely a character: we know she “likes books,” and eventually a couple of her interesting skills will be revealed… just in time to help the hero further his personal journey. Maria’s “rebellious nonsense” — basically, she wants to be her own person — is punished and ultimately squashed. The hero’s is eventually embraced and celebrated. Either Joaquin or Manolo will get to save the town from rampaging bandits, conquer his biggest fear, and gain the love of the woman of his dreams. Maria? She’ll get to be married.

Lest there be any doubt that filmmaker Jorge R. Gutierrez — an animator and TV writer making his feature debut — and his coscreenwriter Douglas Langdale (Happily N’Ever After) don’t think women are very interesting, consider this: One long sequence involves one of the men taking a trip into the Land of the Remembered, which is populated by those who’ve died but are still remembered by someone still alive. Here he encounters a long series of his ancestors… his male ancestors, who’ve all done amazing and heroic things. Eventually he runs into his own departed mother, and the point is clear: women are not generally worth remembering, and are not remembered except perhaps by their own children. Two anomalous token female cousins tossed in later — they fought in some battle or other; ie, they did men’s work — only underscore the point. Just like having Maria toss off a few “feisty” feminist quips does not distract from the fact that — once again — the most important thing a female character in a movie can do is get married.

I was not enchanted.

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