The 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 love.
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 hits.
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.