Films as close to a cultural heritage as The Book of Life is run the risk of becoming overtly self-serious history lessons, especially when you consider that the main audience draw for this film is children. So I can’t help but admit that I prepared for the worst when I saw that the framing device for The Book of Life was a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) giving an impromptu history lesson to a group of wrong-side-of-the-road children about Dia de los Muertos (or The Day of the Dead). But this film is more clever than it seems at first. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the film’s affection for Mexican culture and history is endearing instead of overwhelming. It incorporates Dia de los Muertos imagery into its animation style and incorporates grotesque imagery without scaring the children away (consult The Boxtrolls from earlier this year to see where something like this can go wrong). As the guide begins to tell the story of The Book of Life to the young children, she begins explaining the tale of two childhood friends, Manolo and Joaquin, who do everything together and are even in love with the same girl, Maria. When Maria’s poor behavior convinces her father to send her to live with nuns, Manolo and Joaquin decide to wait patiently for her return, where she’ll decide which of the two she really loves.
But this is not all. The afterlife is represented by two realms: the Land of the Remembered is beautiful and bright, an eternal party where the deceased reunite with loved ones from their past; while the Land of the Forgotten is a grey wasteland where unloved souls rot miserably without purpose. Xibalba (Ron Perlman) rules the Land of the Forgotten, but longs for the shinier life of the other realm, which is ruled by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo). In a guise to switch places, Xibalba proposes a bet to La Muerte. If upon her return, Maria chooses to marry Manolo, La Muerte will keep her place as the ruler of the Land of the Remembered; but if Maria chooses Joaquin, then Xibalba becomes the new ruler, and La Muerte will take her new position in the Land of the Forgotten. Years later, when Maria (Zoe Saldana) does return, she has become a stunning young beauty. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) has built a reputation as a glorious warrior (with the aid of a magical pendant that Xibalba gives him) with many medals to show for it. Manolo (Diego Luna) has grown to have a passion for music, but the overbearing influence of his father (Hector Elizondo) declares that he must be a bullfighter like all of the men in his family. Maria is drawn toward the sincere Manolo but is pressured by everyone to accept the hand of the more impressive Joaquin. As she agonizes over the decision, everyone is completely unaware of the paranormal consequences of her decision.
The Book of Life‘s plot becomes surprisingly more complicated than it would initially appear, and involves a major plot point of Manolo entering the Land of the Remembered and then the Forgotten, etc. The movie’s twists are exciting and not worth spoiling. This is the feature debut of longtime animator Jorge R. Gutierrez, and it’s nice to see a mainstream children’s film so powerfully connected to its Hispanic roots. The film’s script, written by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale, is charming and funny, and not without a few solid jokes to keep the adults entertained. What is not being sold in the film’s trailer is that the movie is also a musical, but with very little original music. The film re-appropriates popular contemporary pop songs (like “I Will Wait” by Mumford & Sons and, most hilariously, “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie) into musical numbers, Moulin Rouge-style. The Book of Life probably relies on lowest common denominator humor more than it really needs to, but its boasted by solid voice performances, especially Tatum who has all but perfected his man child persona with each role he takes. With Big Hero 6 already out, it seems possible that The Book of Life can get swallowed in the race for attention for animated films, but it’s hard to think of another mainstream animated film with more of a commitment to style as this one has.
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez