Apart from using computer animation as opposed to stop motion animation, The Book of Life bears much resemblance to The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s filled with ghouls and ghosts, visually vibrant, and takes place on and around a popular holiday. And like Henry Selick’s 1993 classic, The Book of Life builds big on its material and honors the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead in a sweet, funny, and scary fashion.
The plot of this cartoon romp is propelled by a love triangle. Don’t roll your eyes yet. Manola (a funny and youthful sounding Diego Luna from Elysium), a tender musician at heart, spends his entire childhood being shamed by his father until he does what is in his family’s blood: bullfight. He comes from generations of professional bullfighters, and Manola himself is excellent in the ring, but there’s always the difficulty of dealing with his appeal to music. His childhood amigo Joaquin (a very entertaining Channing Tatum in a role perfect for him) is a bit of a self-centered fighter. He doesn’t fight bulls, nor does he play music, but his broad chest is filled with pinned medals of every fight he’s ever won. These two are in love with Maria (a wonderful Zoe Saldana), the daughter of San Angel’s general.
But it isn’t just the two boys fighting over the girl. This is a fantasy film from producer Guillermo del Toro, so you have to expect some spooky business. It comes in the form of Xibalba and La Muerte, two ancient married deities who rule separate lands. La Muerte (a very good Kate del Castello), a beautifully powerful presence, rules the Land of the Remembered, a heaven-like land in which dead souls live on with their ancestors. It’s colorful, whimsical, and beautiful. Xibalba on the other hand, rules the Land of the Forgotten, where forgotten souls go to decay into nothingness. Somehow, Xibalba comes off as a more wonderfully designed character, physically speaking. He seems to be heavily inspired by Aku from the wonderful Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack. His character reeks of wickedness that can’t quite be hated because of the beautiful visuals, and having Ron Perlman voicing him doesn’t help the matter. Perlman, a bit of a go-to actor for anything del Toro, is excellent as Xibalba. After a case of mischief by Xibalba sends Manola to the Land of the Remembered and leaves Maria in the Land of the Living (overlooked by The Candlemaker, voice by Ice Cube, who felt a bit out of place for me), Manola must find a way to return to reunite with his one true love. Oh, and of course, this all takes place during the Day of the Dead.
It’s a visual feast, but nothing less could be expected from a Guillermo del Toro produced animated feature. Whether the screen is presenting the gorgeously realized Land of the Remembered with all its dazzling lights and Mexican decorations, the spooky coldness of the Land of the Forgotten, or simply the characters inhabiting the Land of the Living, anyone and everyone can take much away from the visuals of this movie. From start to finish, there isn’t a dull moment visually.
Even the script, which stretches years and involves human characters and ancient deities, does a fine job at balancing itself by being told as an old tale by a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) to a group of children. It’s a nice way of including the audience, especially the children in the theater, and one that nicely gives the movie a sense of reason. The story itself does a nice thing by taking the conventional love triangle, adding some supernatural elements, and making it a bit different and original, even if it does sometime lose itself in the human scenes. First time director Jorge R. Gutiérrez, known for creating the award winning series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, casts a beating heart into this film. His Mexican heritage (and del Toro’s as well) surely has a strong impact on the movie’s story, and that is always something meaningful to experience. Here, Gutiérrez manages to weave a well told tale, one that’s entertaining, charming, and funny, and pay huge respect to a holiday that more than likely means a lot to him.
I particularly liked the ending of the film, a twist with the tour guide I knew was coming in one way or another, but not the way it did. It took me off guard, and put a smile on my face. It’s the kind of ending that makes the time of the movie worth it.
One could go into The Book of Life knowing it’s a Guillermo del Toro produced animated fantasy film centering on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead and expect a visual feast, and from start to finish one will get just that. But the real treat of this film is the heart beating beneath it. First time director Jorge R. Gutiérrez has done an excellent job in crafting a film that means something to him, and it is also well told, entertaining, sweet, funny, and spooky. That’s what you paid for, isn’t it?
The Book of Life (2014) 95 mins Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements, and brief scary images Starring Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Christina Applegate, Kate del Castello, Ron Perlman, Ice Cube Written by Jorge Gutierrez and Doug Langdale Directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez