The Book of Life is a film the more I’ve thought about the more forgiving I have become about its weaknesses. There are certain aspects to the story that could be better but one thing I never had any doubt on was the film’s magnificent artistry. Jorge R Guitierrez’s amazing visual palate and vision is incredible to watch and so I had to pick up the art book as soon as I could lay my hands on it!
I always like art books where you can tell there is a real affection for the film on the part of the creators. Such is the case with the Book of Life. It starts with a forward from producer Guillermo del Toro. He talks about meeting Guitierrez and that his ‘enthusiasm was overwhelming’. These are the kind of people I want making movies!
Guillermo agrees with me “Jorge is my favorite kind of filmmaker- the guy who permeates every single aspect of his work with his ideas, his vision and his hard work but, like any good leader, allows everyone to feel like a vital contributor to the tale.” He goes on to say “browse through the art in this book and you will find a crew in love with their work, inspired by the world that Jorge has presented to us…”
Next we get an introduction by Guitierrez. It’s really cool because he talks about he loves art books and he says “And now, I swear by the blood of my ancestors, this film and this book are one! THIS I SWEAR! In fact, it was my intention from the start to have our beloved film look exactly like the art in these pages….We poured our heart and ouls into the art in your hands. And little spicy salsa….Now go enjoy the spicy art in this book. We made it just for you and all the little mustachioed kids all over the world. We are the Book of Life”. I love that!
The first chapter is about characters. We get the evolution of the characters which I always like to see and it’s not just the big characters but every last one of them. It is also really cool to learn about details like the colors of the wood in the characters designated what spirit world they are in and how old they are.
Chapter 2 is about the world-building and is entitled “the Making of the Book of Life”. I really like how they lay out the different ingredients that make up each world. The Land of the Remembered contains- skulls, hearts, flower petals floating upwards, plant life and growth, 15% square shapes, 80% circular and 5% triangular. The Land of the Forgotten contains- stalactites, stalagmites, ash, charcoal trees, giant chains, 5% square shapes, 5% circular, 90% triangular. Isn’t that interesting? I would never have noticed all the triangles in the Land of the Forgotten!
Each page in this section is full of storyboards and concept art including a fold out page that becomes 3 pages of storyboards!
The final chapter focuses on each of the main locations. We get to see the incredible detail in buildings like the chapel and bull fighting ring. I loved seeing all the matador posters they made.
And all the detail about the Land of the Remembered is worth the price of the book!
The final segment is a brief Afterword by art director Paul Sullivan about the collaborative process with Reel FX who I don’t think get enough credit for this film. It certainly is a huge step up from their first film Free Birds.
This Art of Book of Life is a special book because it helps you see the passion that goes into a film. I guess I particularly appreciate it because it was a film I was maybe a little harsh on the first time I saw it. Those problems are still there but I think I always saw the beauty and passion that went into it. It just makes me appreciate it a little bit more. I’m glad I own the book and would recommend it to all of you!
Recently a lot of people enjoyed my piece on ‘How to Fix Superman‘ and I was thinking about it in regards to 2 movies I saw this weekend- X-Men Apocalypse and Alice Through the Looking Glass. I didn’t like either film and started wondering about what would I do to make them better. X-Men is kind of an easy question because they already made a near perfect X-Men film in X-Men Days of Future Past. Just do that again…But Alice, now that got me thinking. How would I change Alice and make it work for a modern audience? Let me lay out it out for you:
1.Use the books!
None of the Alice in Wonderland films have done particularly well at using the actual Lewis Carroll novels. The 1951 animated film is certainly the closest but it cuts out a ton of the characters and scenes in the book. For example the Duchess and her entire plot with Bill the Lizard is eliminated.
Naturally you have to take things away when doing any adaptation but it would be nice for once to see a very close telling of Carroll’s book. In Disney’s animated version they bring in incidents like the Walrus and the Carpenter which is in Alice Through the Looking Glass and leave out the Mock Turtle and other good stuff in the Adventures in Wonderland book, so there is time to include more from each book.
The reason I think this would be a great fix to Alice in Wonderland is it would feel new while still being authentic to the world of the story. One of the many problems in Alice Through the Looking Glass is the new characters they invented (movie has nothing to do with its titled book) felt extremely generic. There certainly wasn’t anything nearly as creative as a gryphon or Mock Turtle.
Alice in Wonderland is great because it is unpredictable. It has little plot but it constantly surprises the reader with a new creature, idea or joke (more on that later). This makes the book charming and the animated film captures this appeal but it could be expanded upon.
2. Embrace the Nonsense
One of the best things about the animated Alice in Wonderland is the embrace of nonsense. I love when Alice says “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
This quote does something that Over the Rainbow does for Wizard of Oz. It gives a reason for our heroine to be seeking another world and then when she lands there let her be dazzled by the nonsense. There is no need to explain why the Red Queen has a large head like they do in the latest film. We don’t need a story about the Hatter’s family. We simply want Alice to meet a lot of fun creatures and get home at the end. It’s as simple as that.
Nonsense at its core should be unpredictable while exposition and dopey plots are not. Alice doesn’t work unless it is unexpected.
3. Embrace the Humor of the Book
One of the things the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland gets right is the wicked humor in Carroll’s writing. When I recently read his books I was surprised how much I laughed. It’s a kind of absurdist humor and can be very dark but that is part of its charm.
For example, I love when the Duchess’ baby turns into a pig. This is not only funny but wickedly grotesque in a way. Either way it is unexpected and once again that’s what we need in a new Alice.
Other funny characters can include- Cheshire cat, Mad Hatter, The King, Tweedledee and Tweedledum and more.
4. Do not ‘YA’ it up
One of the absolute worst trends in recent literature has been the YA retellings of classic fairytales. I blame Wicked but then Twilight took it to a new level with their ‘new take’ on classic vampire lore. These terrible novels almost always contain a love triangle and a mysterious heroine who is bland, bland, bland.
The 2010 Alice in Wonderland didn’t go the love triangle route but it tried to YA Alice with a bland heroine who is the chosen one and is going to set everything right. Maleficent certainly tried to follow this trend. Ugh. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Every character somehow gets turned into this mopey, annoying, brooding teenage girl and you know what that is- boring!!!
Fairytales have somehow managed to appeal to people for hundreds of years without love triangles and chosen ones and all this YA nonsense messing them up. People hate on Frozen but at least it did a few things that were different and unexpected to most people.
5. Embrace More Realistic Style and Production Design
We’ve gotten 2 movies where we have CG’d our brains out in Wonderland. Let’s try something different. What if instead of a totally synthetic world we embraced a Wes Anderson type of sensibility for our new Alice in Wonderland? What if it wasn’t actually a rabbit but a woman with rabbit ears? That would be intriguing and different? It could be more like the fairytales of the 1980s where the dialogue and costumes did the talking rather than the special effects.
Alice could still be in a new place and it could still be Wonderland but why does everything have to be new? Having a more subdued aesthetic to Wonderland might force writers to focus on the dialogue, which is where Alice in Wonderland should really shine anyway.
You wouldn’t have to get Wes Anderson but he is such a great writer I would love to see him work on it. And I would love to get cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki involved and his famous long takes. How great would that be?
Another film I would point them to for inspiration is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This is obviously a more horror take on a fantasy world but look how real the creature looks? Like you could reach out and touch it. How neat would it be for Alice to meet a character that feels so palatable and real?
del Toro obviously used CG and special effects in Pan’s Labyrinth but never in a way that takes you out of the movie. It’s too add flair rather than compensate for lazy writing. And most importantly it was something new and totally unexpected and again that’s what we need for Alice to work.
In conclusion, if I had was asked to pitch a new Alice in Wonderland here’s what I’d suggest:
Alice is a young girl in the 1950s who is bored with her strict parents and teachers. One day she stumbles upon a book in the library about a rabbit and his adventures in Wonderland. The next thing she knows she is in a version of her school but everything looks different- like it has been reversed. Some people have strange costumes on and she wonders if it is a special costume day and nobody told her. Then she see’s a boy with rabbit ears on who looks scared. He is rushing out of the school and she follows him into a strange woods. There she meets a variety of creatures and people, some of them funny, some nonsensical, some scary. Eventually she figures out her boredom is really her own fault and there are things she needs to be doing back in her regular life. She wakes up in the library with the librarian telling her class is dismissed. On to further adventures she goes ready to live a dynamic life!
Don’t kill me that it isn’t perfect but hopefully it gives you a flavor of the kind of story I think might work very well. Either way it would be something new and visually different than we have seen in Alice in Wonderland. It would stick closer to the book, embrace the humor of the story and avoid all that YA crap.
What do you think? Am I on to something? What would you do to make Alice in Wonderland good again?
Over the Garden Wall is similar to the type of aesthetic and combination of humor/magic/realism that I think would be great.