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Movie Review

The Book of Life

MPAA Rating: PGfor mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.

Reviewed by: Samuel Chetty

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Kids Family
Animation Kids Family Romance Comedy Music
1 hr. 35 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
October 17, 2014 (wide—3,000+ theaters)
DVD: January 27, 2015
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

trying to fulfill the expectations of your family

pros and cons of following your heart

facing your greatest fears

FEAR, Anxiety and Worry—What does the Bible say? Answer

Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

spirits in the Bible

about death as explained in the Bible

final judgment

Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

TRUE LOVE—What is true love and how do you know when you have found it? Answer

Featuring: Channing TatumJoaquin (voice)
Zoe SaldanaMaria (voice)
Ron PerlmanXibalba (voice)
Christina ApplegateMary Beth (voice)
Danny TrejoSkeleton Luis (voice)
Ice CubeCandle Maker (voice)
Gabriel Iglesias … Pepe Rodriguez (voice)
Diego Luna … Manolo (voice)
Ana de la Reguera … Skeleton Carmen (voice)
Anita Briem … Rosie (voice)
Cheech Marin … Pancho Rodriguez (voice)
more »
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Producer: Reel FX Creative Studios
Twentieth Century Fox Animation
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“The Book of Life” tells a story set in Mexico with many supernatural elements. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) are each a god-like ruler of an afterlife realm. Xibalba wants to expand his power to La Muerte’s realm, so he makes a bet with La Muerte involving three kids on Earth: Maria (Zoe Saldana), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Manolo (Diego Luna). The bet is that if Maria grows up and marries Joaquin, Xibalba takes over La Muerte’s realm. If she marries Manolo, Xibalba will no longer be allowed to interfere with humans’ course of events. Both Xibalba and La Muerte use supernatural powers to try to guide the lives of their favored guy.

Manolo comes from a family of bull fighters, and his father is determined that he too will be a bull fighter. But Manolo’s conscience has a problem with killing bulls. Unfortunately, he is disgraced by the community because they cannot understand that objection and see him as a coward or rebel against tradition. Maria is sympathetic toward him, but marrying him would be stigmatized, and the social pressure for her to marry Joaquin, a skilled fighter with Xibalba’s aid, is very strong.

Although the story unfolds with enough twists to hold one’s attention, when all is said and done, many plot devices seem familiar. Regarding characterizations, the movie seems to just be going with the flow of contemporary social trends, without injecting its own ideas. Manolo’s personality and role are a lot like the protagonist from “How to Train Your Dragon,” echoing the perception that youth audiences favor characters whose benevolent nature leads to questioning tradition, without further building on that idea very much. And there’s Maria, another spunky female heroine who can fend for herself in contrast to female stereotypes in old-fashioned fairytales who rely on a nobleman. Though I do think that is a good change, after a series of such characters in recent years, I don’t think that trait by itself merits automatic points today. What starts out as a novelty can become another stereotype, if it is not continually developed.

The movie’s strong points are its animation, scenery, and music. Musically, it is definitely better than average for an animated musical. Although there are not any songs that I like enough to download and listen to repeatedly, the songs are fun or pleasant to listen to while watching, and they don’t make the movie feel slow. As for humor, there are witty lines in the dialog, but there are also a lot of cartoonish antics that some audiences may find more amusing than others.

From a Christian perspective, the movie’s spirituality is concerning. While many animated kids’ movies have magic of some sort, The Book of Life’s magic has allusions to real world spiritual practices, as opposed to being completely fictional. For instance, The Day of the Dead celebration is a major part of the story. There are also food sacrifices to deceased family members, many displays of Cross symbols (often next to skull symbols), and characters who look like nuns. The movie’s concept of the afterlife is that if people remember you after you die, you live in a great realm, but if nobody remembers you, you live in a dreadful realm. I am not aware of any branch of Christianity which holds that view.

The characters Xibalba and La Muerte appear to be rulers at the highest rank in the universe. Both Protestants and Catholics of various types are likely to find content that does not jive with their faith. In my opinion, this movie is in a different category from something like The Chronicles of Narnia (virtually no one actually believes there’s a fantasy world in their wardrobe). “The Book of Life,” on the other hand, references supernatural beliefs or practices that kids could look up via real world resources, and they may notice references to their own faith in the film, making it more influential or confusing.

Aside from the supernatural elements, the amount of objectionable content is low. There is a fighting sequence between humans and bull-like creatures from the villain lasting several minutes near the end which, while not gory, had action more intense than usual for a PG movie. There are some characters with potentially scary physical appearances. Language is limited to a single use of “bull” as a euphemism and some name-calling. There is no sexual content except for kissing. The only alcohol or drug content is when characters mention having been to a bar while acting slightly drunk.

All things considered, I have decided not to give “The Book of Life” a positive recommendation. The movie does not uniquely offer enough positive elements to outweigh the spiritual concerns. There is a good message about sticking to your convictions despite social pressure, but the presentation is not very creative. The story and characters might have been more original twenty years ago, but in 2014 it gives me a déjà vu feeling.

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Minor

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—This movie is SPECTACULAR!!! The animation is a nice reprieve from Pixar and Disney. Yes, it concerns The Day of the Dead, which may be strange to those who do not understand it, but this movie’s message is a simple and beautiful one. Write your own story, be brave and be yourself. It will all pay off in the end… and maybe a bit after.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Good / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Katherine, age 24 (USA)
Positive—Offensive? Yeah, right. I’m from Guatemala, and this celebration of El Día de los Muertos and El Día de Todos los Santos is common, also common on the Christian community, because we remember our relatives who passed away. We eat a dish named Fiabre. There are families that go to the cemetery to put flowers, etc. Others just eat fiambre and enjoy the day, it’s the opinion of the people, but it’s part of the Latin community.

The film is original, with script, and story is outstanding; the voice cast very rich, also the music. I saw kids and parents laughing and enjoying the film. These traditions are common in Guatemala and México; it’s part of us. The film is incredible, and you must see it.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Excellent! / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Sergio De La Cruz, age 18 (Guatemala)
Positive—I was immediately drawn to this movie, and I found it an absolute delight. Director and creator Jorge Gutierrez is a man who is truly passionate about his roots and wants his art to tell the stories of his culture. The visuals in “The Book of Life” are breathtaking; the original songs in the movie were beautifully crafted, and the story is carried well throughout and easy to follow. The voice acting is also quite well, and each character presents a different and important element in the story. more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Trinody, age 21 (USA)
Negative—There is only one Book of Life, and it is in Heaven with God the Father, contains the names of those covered by the blood of the Lamb of God, and is not to be understood by believers to be any other thing. Whether someone, or an entire country, has social or traditional celebrations for things in their lives carries no weight in our eternal destinies. And I’m very surprised and disappointed by people claiming Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life… but also claiming the worthless traditions of their forefathers” celebrations of death as equally significant or powerful.

There is no celebration of death in Heaven, for it is is appointed unto man to die once and then comes the judgement: either Heaven for those who have placed their faith in Jesus to save, or Hell for those who have not.

Believers do no stay on Earth after they die, and they are not honored by garishly toting around skulls, as if this mockery honors those living and beautiful souls who are in the presence of Christ. He is the God of the Living, not the Dead… so to remain focused on parts of dead skeletons is not being realistic about the spiritual reality of where those who have died in Christ are. They do not live in some surrealistic dream concocted out of distraught human imaginations, with freakishly disturbing imagery… but in Heaven, where the Son of God lights the spiritual universe with His Beautiful Glory.

Beyond any of this confusion that comes from not reading the Scriptures is also the blatant mention of rulers or godlike beings in the film (one of whose name is Xibalba, or the Mayan underworld of death) that control different realms of the dead… and this is a Kids’ Movie? This alone should turn on warning signals in the hearts of Christians. Adonai alone wants our heart’s devotion, and He will not share it with other gods. The Bible is very clear: there is only one God who controls both heaven and hell, and He does not share authority in this matter. Everyone’s eternal destinies are completely in His control… not in another god, angel, or fictional cg character’s control. No one can snatch the believer out of His Hand.

Praise to the Heavenly Father for writing the believer’s name in the One True Book of Life.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: none
—Luke, age 31 (USA)
Negative—I’m sorry guys, but I could not stand this movie. There is only one book of life. And to name muerto dulce (sweet death), really this is too much. I get the whole Latin Culture, because I am Latin, but I can not compromise. I cannot in good conscience offend my God by watching this film. Call me melodramatic, but I see how they try to incorporate darkness into the kids’ films these day, and that is really sad. I don’t really care what people think of me, but rather what God thinks of me. Time to take a stance people. …
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: ½
—Collins, age 32 (USA)
Movie Critics

Though THE BOOK OF LIFE is entertaining with some positive moral, redemptive messages, the movie’s dark syncretistic worldview and false elements require extreme caution.
—Ted Baehr, Movieguide

…The visuals outshine the story… Del Toro was clearly a hands-on creative producer here, bolstering the visual aesthetic of a production that can more comfortably introduce a younger generation to his darkly fanciful sensibilities. …
—Geoff Berkshire, Variety

…the Bible differs in significant ways from this vibrant (if occasionally mildly violent) animated adventure's take on them… death and salvation, heaven and hell…
—Bob Hoose, Plugged In

…beware that little ones will be asking lots of questions about an Afterlife location where you either go to a beautiful place so long as loved ones are praying for you and still remember you, or one where only sad and lonely souls dwell because no one remembers them.
—Phil Boatwright, Preview Family Movie and TV Review

…even at 95 minutes the film felt too long. But the overall impression is a lively, funny, sweet tale about being true to yourself and your calling. Unfortunately, the theology/mythology surrounding the story will make it problematic for parents trying to instill biblical truth in their young children. …
—Susan Ellingburg, Crosswalk

…Visually arresting but dramatically rote… should score points with families looking for kid-friendly movies that reflect aspects of their Mexican cultural heritage. [2½/5]
—Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle

…It’s exciting, funny, and exuberant. The colors, the music, the vocal performances, and the wild visual imagination all feel as if those making it were having actual fun. … [3/4]
—Michael Ordona, San Francisco Chronicle

…delivers family-friendly themes with humor… [A-]
—Nancy Churnin, The Dallas Morning News

…‘The Book of Life’ alive with color, if not wit… [2/4]
—Sara Stewart, New York Post

…Gorgeous visuals compensate for a familiar storyline… “The Book of Life” provides much amusement with its inspired musical choices.
—Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter

…it’s that rare gem of a 'toon that delights both child and adult. [A-]
—Marc Snetiker, Entertainment Weekly

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