The Book Of Life—Movie Review

nullThe Book of Life
is one of the most unusual animated films I’ve ever seen; its characters and
settings inspired by Mexican folk art and its story drawn from the mythology
surrounding The Day of the Dead. Merging that concept with the rapid-punchline
humor we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood cartoon features is unsettling at
times, but kids probably won’t mind the mashup. What won me over was the
striking look of the picture, especially the way its characters are depicted as
hand-carved wooden figures. My hat’s off to director/co-writer/character
designer Jorge R. Gutierrez (of the popular animation series El Tigre) for realizing his vision—with more than a little
help (I suspect) from producer Guillermo del Toro. (Gutierrez’s wife, Sandra
Equihua, shares credit for character design.)

Stripped of its unusual trappings, the story outline is
comfortably familiar: two boys and a girl grow up as the closest of friends. As
young adults, they must follow their destiny. Manolo (Diego Luna) will continue
his family tradition as a bullfighter, even though he is opposed to killing and
much prefers to play his guitar. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is destined to be the
hero of his village and protect the community from a deadly bandit. Maria (Zoë Saldana) loves them both, but is no damsel in distress: she’s a modern woman in
every respect.  

Unbeknownst to this trio, their lives are being watched over
by two powerful spirits. From the Land of the Remembered, La Muerte (Kate del
Castillo) roots for the good-hearted Manolo, while her unscrupulous husband
Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who presides over the Land of the Forgotten, contrives
ways for the macho Joaquin to triumph. What they can’t anticipate is that the
would-be heroes are willing to die for their principles, and for the woman they


Death plays a huge role in The Book of Life, and while Mexican beliefs and traditions are well
explained, the accumulation is a bit daunting. The film becomes dense and
convoluted at times. I wouldn’t want to have to explain each step of the story
to a youngster, nor would I want to test a non-Latino child’s ability to accept
the ideas of death and redemption.

Aware of this, the director and his co-writer (Doug Langdale)
pepper the script with jokes—lots and lots of jokes—and provide a highly
relatable framework for the entire story, as a savvy tour guide (Christina
Applegate) takes a group of smart-alecky school kids on a museum tour that
introduces them to the Day of the Dead. A lively music score by Gustavo
Santaolalla features some new songs and humorous interpolations of vintage pop

I can’t predict how audiences will respond to The Book of Life, but I doubt if anyone
will be bored. It’s a distinctive film and a notable achievement, even if its
disparate elements don’t always blend in the smoothest way. I’ll be eager to
see what Gutierrez and his colleagues at Dallas’ ReelFX Animation Studios cook
up next—especially if they continue their association with del Toro.


Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


April 2024