Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, The Book of Life is a new animated film that feels fresh, but makes a few missteps to keep it from becoming an animation classic.
The story, written by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale, focuses on the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is not as ghoulish as it sounds. It is a day of remembrance for the Mexican people and is central to the film. At the center of the tale are three friends, Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Maria (Zoe Saldana). Both Manolo and Joaquin have had a friendly rivalry for the hand of Maria since they were children. In fact, gods—for lack of a better word—arrange a wager on who will win the hand of Maria. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) rules the Land of the Remembered, which is essentially heaven, while her former lover and rival Xibalba (Ron Perlman) rules the Land of the Forgotten. Of course, Xibalba wishes to have a taste of the good life, so he arranges the wager. If his champion, Joaquin, wins Maria’s hand, then Xibalba will rule the Land of the Remembered. If Manolo succeeds, then Xibalba will no longer meddle in the affairs of mortals. Predictably, Xibalba cheats and helps Joaquin along the way, though the young man doesn’t know about the endgame. Joaquin follows in the footsteps of his father and becomes a great warrior, while Manolo reluctantly follows his father’s path to become a bullfighter, when all he wants to do is be a musician. After several years in Spain, Maria returns and the two friends fight for her affections. When it looks like Manolo is going to win, Xibalba cheats again and kills Manolo, sending him to the Land of the Remembered, where he is reunited with all his deceased relatives, but he strives to return to the world of the living so he can win Maria’s hand. Will he succeed?
The animation style employed here is very distinctive. Some of the characters, especially the male characters, looked like marionettes with their boxy appearance. It’s also a very colorful and unabashedly positive film, which is great for kids. Though the film definitely has familiar tropes, the film’s Mexican flavor and mythology give it a fresh feel in today’s cinematic landscape. The film is a lot of fun and great for kids, but parents may have a tougher time sitting through it for multiple reasons.
First off, the humor, for the most part, is very much geared toward children. There was one, truly adult joke that I laughed at, but no big deal, I expect this of a lot of animated films, even though I’ve been spoiled by Pixar. Also, there are several songs throughout the film, which makes sense since Manolo wants to be a musician. The original songs work very well within the story, although there’s nothing truly spectacular about them. However, when existing pop songs are injected into the film, the results are laughable. There are some points in the film where these songs are supposed to be used in a funny way, but there are a couple of instances where they are heartfelt and they just do not work. Finally, another sticking point for me was the framing device for the film, which is in the form of a modern day museum visit by modern day kids. The film constantly cuts back and forth to the museum guide (Christina Applegate) telling the story to both the kids and the audience. However, as the film goes on, the framing device becomes not only annoying, but redundant and unnecessary. It constantly took me out of the film.
The cast does a great job with the material and it was refreshing to have a mainly Spanish-speaking cast in an animated film. The only actor who stuck out like a sore thumb was Ice Cube as The Candle Maker, another god who is basically neutral. The reason why Cube stuck out is because he was basically just playing Ice Cube in a Mexican animation film. He even goes so far as to quote one of his songs. He’s not terrible, but his presence is distracting.
Overall, while The Book of Life isn’t the greatest animated film out there, it’s a fresh, fun, and cute movie for kids. Don’t be turned off by the Day of the Dead references, because as I said, it’s more about remembrance than scares. Take your kids to see it, but try not to laugh when Luna belts Radiohead’s “Creep.”