Animated children’s films that handle the topic of death usually do so quickly and quietly, acknowledging the tragedy of a lost life just before the trauma of loss fuels the main character’s maturation in their story. It happens often in animated tales (the parents usually being the unlucky ones). Perseverance in the face of someone’s passing is a perfectly heartening way of presenting the idea of death to a younger audience but it’s one that’s been seen so many times before. Director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez instead opts to create a story that celebrates lost loved ones and shows us that remembering and honoring the memory of someone is just as noble as fighting the bad guy. Guillermo del Toro produces this first feature film by Gutierrez. ‘The Book of Life’ is an unremittingly colourful presentation of Mexican culture and folklore.
The film opens with a small group of schoolchildren on their way to a museum on November 2nd, the Day of the Dead. From here a tour guide takes the children on a behind the scenes tour which leads to the titular Book of Life. One of the many stories held within the book is that of the Mexican town of San Angel (The center of the world, as it were) and two young men both pining after the same girl. Manolo, the aspiring singer and reluctant bullfighter competes with his best friend Joaquin for the affection of their childhood friend, the feisty Maria.
Unbeknownst to the young trio of friends is the fact that La Muerte and Xibalba, rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten respectively, have taken an interest in what are clearly the beginnings of a love triangle. The two godly lovers make a bet over who will ultimately win over Maria. Should La Muerte lose then Xibalba will be given dominion over the Land of the Remembered while La Muerte takes his place in the Land of The Forgotten.
There’s a lot going on in the first act of this movie and I don’t think it would be unreasonable to think that some younger children may lose the plot before things ever really get going. It’s not a complicated progression of story beats; it just comes rather quickly. Gutierrez has a whole lot of characters, location and lore to set up and his decision to try and get as much of the story’s elements onscreen while losing as little as possible in the translation is commendable. While the film moves along at a good pace, it did feel like it could have used a little bit more breathing room. The framing device of the museum tour guide relating the story to a group of schoolchildren somewhat justifies the more expositorily heavy parts of the movie but its use is completely validated in a couple of comedic cuts to the children’s reactions during the more solemn parts of the story. “This is supposed to be a story for kids!” one child laments as Manolo first enters the Land of the Remembered.
As the trailers and marketing suggests, death is not the end in ‘The Book of Life’. Xibalba, fearing that he might lose the wager, sets into motion events that drop Manolo into the Land of the Remembered. As the movie posited earlier, the Land of the Remembered is the place where all your loved ones exist, so long as you hold on to their memories. The use of 3D in the movie up until this moment was adequate, opting to employ depth between the characters and the background rather than throwing elements forward towards the viewers. The 3D is used best in these otherworldly segments. The stylized nature of the film already lent itself well to the animated style but San Angel still approximated some kind of recognizable reality. However, in the Land of the Remembered, it really seems as if the artists have been given free rein to create as colourful and lively an environment as they could by using traditional Mexican Cartonería as a base for inspiration.
It was refreshing to watch Manolo reunited with his various family members, each one being celebrated rather than mourned. ‘The Book of Life’, when not exploring more common story tropes like its love triangle or foreboding, imminent, off-screen threat, is a movie that feels more original than the sum of its parts. This dual nature of being an original work and being a retread of other animated films even comes across in its soundtrack. Manolo, being the singer that he is, ends up belting out a handful of tunes throughout the movie. Gustavo Santaolalla’s (‘Motorcycle Diaries’, ‘The Last of Us’) ‘I Love You Too Much’ is a great original piece of music created for the film. For as many of these original works, there are covers of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ or Mumford and Sons’ ‘I Will Wait For You’. Although these covers are done up in mariachi stylings, it is still jarring to hear and does more to take you out of the movie than immerse you into it.
The voice work ranges from serviceable to inspired, and, in Channing Tatum’s case, confusing. Tatum’s character Joaquin feels out of place in the movie due to Tatum’s tendency to drift in and out of his accent several times throughout the movie. Others, like Ron Perlman’s Xibalba just make sense. Perlman’s performance recalls James Woods’ Hades in the animated ‘Hercules’ film, sinister yet playful and when La Muerte’s (Kate del Castillo) wrath is aimed at him, slyly penitent. Diego Luna who voices Manolo is another highlight, singing many of his songs himself in the film.
‘The Book of Life’ is a refreshing approach to an animated children’s movie. The way it explores ideas of death skew it closer to something along the lines of Tim Burton rather than Pixar. Even still, the movie is ultimately incapable of completely abandoning the well-worn story structure of the genre and finally gives in with a big fight scene against an extremely one-dimensional bad guy who feels like he belongs in another movie entirely. The original songs are well written and performed but are also met with covers of popular songs which, once again, rob it of a feeling of originality. ‘The Book of Life’ is a briskly told story inspired by Mexican culture that occasionally feels overstuffed, while the art and animations are beautiful to look at. Top it off with a mostly fitting cast of voices to help bring it all to life (and death), ‘The Book of Life’ is a well put together package.