The Book of Life

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

— Ursula K Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas" (1974)

It is easy, almost effortless, to think of artistic masterworks that fit this pattern, exploring miserable lives with elegance and sophistication, marshaling great intellectual and expressive resources to pick apart physical and emotional suffering. It is harder to think of works that revel unabashedly in their celebration of joy, that take happiness and flourishing as their subject and refuse to apologize for doing so.

The Book of Life is one such work, and it is so refreshing for being so.

First of all, it is simply a beautiful film. The animation is breathtaking, from start to finish, a visual extravaganza of colors, shapes, and textures. But it's not chaos; there's an order to the riot, a careful plan to delineate different regions with different palates. Some of it's subtle and some of it's not, but it all works to give an underlying coherence and logic to the visual feast on the screen.

That exuberance flows over into other aspects of the film. The story is overflowing with exuberant invention, from off-beat running gags to evocative world-building details, giving a sense of perpetual discovery and delight. It's not a long film — it clocks in at a little over an hour and a half — but it's a full and satisfying experience, overflowing with richness and depth. It's the kind of film where I'll still be picking up on new things the dozenth time I watch it.

Some people have criticized the plot for not living up to the same level as the other elements (especially the animation). It's true that the storyline is hardly earth-shattering. It's not a revolutionary tale, full of unexpected twists and subverted tropes, nor is it a subtle and complicated one full of gnarly situations and vexatious questions. (It's also not great on the representation front: There are no queer characters, and there could stand to be considerably more women.) It's not full of high suspense — I was almost always wondering how things would happen rather than what would happen.

But I think it's important to have stories like this. There isn't anything inherently wrong with simplicity. I firmly believe that we need stories like this, honest stories, told from the heart, stories that reaffirm values like integrity and self-sacrifice and letting others be who they are instead of who we think they ought to be.

And this is where that Ursula Le Guin quote comes in. It's easy to be cynical about this kind of story. Sometimes, even the stories themselves seem apologetic, embarrassed to show such earnestness. But simple is not simplistic. You don't have to choose between being grim and being insipid.

The Book of Life doesn't shy away from conflict, and it doesn't sugar-coat the elements of death and loss that are so central to the story. (I don't want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that there's a moment where a candle flickering out is imbued with heartbreaking significance.) But it doesn't make the sorrowful moments interfere with the happy ending. It is possible to be genuinely sad at one moment and still be genuinely joyous later.

There are times I want that sadness. There are times I want the fierce, keening anguish and catharsis of high tragedy. There are times I want to experience a work that reflects the deep ambiguities and anticlimaxes of daily life, where all victories are contingent and all conclusions tentative. But there are also times where I want to break free from weariness, wariness, and endless examinations of human misery, to rejoice in art that celebrates the good things life has to offer.

The Book of Life is a glorious celebration of all these things, and I am so glad that it exists in the world.

See this movie.