The Book of Life is a joyful, giddy experience, brimming with energy and life, which is odd to say since much of it takes place in the land of the dead. But don’t let that description dissuade you, just because it is about the dead does not mean it’s a dreary experience. It’s more about remembering those who have come before, honoring one’s heritage, and being true to yourself. It’s all there but not in a preachy manner.
The movie is bursting with creativity, it not only honors Mexican culture and the Dios De Los muertos, but it also honors the animated form. Animators work with more freedom than the creators of live-action – they have to create an entire world completely out of scratch. Yet, somehow in the last few years, the animation market has been overstuffed by uninspired retreads of familiar – and not to mention safe – subject matter. The characters are as bland and forgettable as the stories they tell.
The Book of Life is different, and it’s creative engine is provided by Guillermo del Toro, the whip-smart filmmaker who previously gave us Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. With The Book of Life, he puts together a beguiling experience that looks and feels new. Dispatching the usual band of roly-poly characters, the occupants of this film look like puppets, wooden puppets right down to their hinged-joints. We feel that we’re watching a marionette performance without the strings – the effect is not only great pop art, but it’s kind of magical.
The story is simplistic, but not simple minded. It begins in the land of the living and involves a love triangle between three childhood friends: good-hearted Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) who wants to break his family’s bull fighting tradition by becoming a mariachi singer. There’s spunky and independent Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) who Manolo will be in love with forever after. And there’s Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum), a rustler-buster whose medal-strewn military uniform hides a great deal of insecurity. They both love the beautiful Maria, but it is Manolo who loves her from deep down in his very DNA. In one brief, magical moment, he serenades the beautiful Maria with his rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” It’s a moment that will break your heart.
Outside of their mortal coil, the trio are being watched by two married deities, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo) and Xiabalba (Ron Perlman). They watch over The Land of the Remembered, a happy place where people go when they die, and also The Land of the Forgotten, a dreary place where the dead go when the living forget them. The two make a bet on the love triangle. La Muerta bets that Maria will choose Manolo, while Xiabalba has his money on Joaquin. The winner gets to rule the netherworld.
What happens next, I leave for you to discover. Yeah, you will probably be able to see what’s coming next, but the story is not the point. The film’s great joy is the glorious worlds it creates. It is one of those rare animated films that never stops reinventing itself. The movie excels in its tiny details rather than overwhelming with its broader intentions. There’s a trio of squeaky angelic nuns, a mariachi band that murders “You Got What I Need” (a song that was half-dead to begin with), and a bull that is part parody and part steampunk nightmare.
What makes the film special is its willingness to go for the jugular. The ball gets rolling and it doesn’t stop for the insipid detail of most animated features these days. When it does slow down, it’s for tender moments between Manolo and Maria that create a special bond – you feel that they’re really in love. If the movie fails at anything it may be that the casting (which is made up mostly of Hispanic actors) sometimes goes over the edge. I liked Channing Tatum’s mustache-twirling machismo as Joaquin, and I liked Zoe Saldana as Maria, but honestly, the movie clangs when we meet the overseer of The Land of the Remembered, voiced by Ice-Cube with all the predictable hip-hop renderings and sign language – he brings the movie to a dead stop (no pun intended). That limitation aside, this is still a magical experience. It’s something new in a genre that relies on the familiar. It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s got great music and great animation. This is one of those films where the filmmakers really cared.