lDirector: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Cast: Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate de Castillo and Diego Luna
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: October 24th
Primarily set around the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico where family and friends gather to pray and remember loved ones, who have died, The Book of Life sees two gods; La Muerte, the ruler of the Land of the Remembered (Kate del Castillo); and Xibalba, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (Ron Perlman) decide to place a bet on who will rule the Land of the Remembered. After seeing three young kids playing, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquín (Channing Tatum) who are both in love with María (Zoe Saldana), they each bet on one of the boys to marry María when they become adults.
While this set up would seem simple enough, the film adds in the background for the boys. Manolo is from a family of bullfighters but really has a passion for music while Joaquín, who wishes to be a brave adventurous hero like his deceased father, is giving a medal by a disguised Xibalba that will make him immune from harm. Added to that is a bandit Chakal (Dan Navarro) who lays siege to their town upon learning that Joaquín, who grew up to be a famous hero, has the medal, and Manolo’s journey in the Land of the Remembered when he is tricked by Xibalba into sacrificing himself in order to save María. Another layer to it all is the fact that the film is structured as a story being told by a tour guide to a small group of kids at a museum who occasionally interrupt to comment on what is happening. I think it would be understandable if any kids watching the film would ask, “Wait. What?”
Unlike last year’s Free Birds, made by the same animation studio Reel FX, whose stoner influenced writing of time traveling turkeys proved that narrative is extremely important in kids animation, that the animation itself isn’t enough to hold the interest of children, The Book of Life does at least give its characters a clear goal in what they set out to do. Throughout everything we never forget that all the Manolo and Joaquín want to do is to win the heart of María and that María in turn won’t be won over that easily. The characters are given enough charm and likability to hold our interest.
There is also the animation itself that is lively through and at time simple gorgeous to look at. The characters are very nicely designed to resemble wooden puppets and when the action goes to the Land of the Remembered the film uses the skull imagery that synonymous with the Day of the Dead festival to create at place that is spooky but at the same time fun to watch.
One aspect that lets the film down is that it is not as funny as it needs to be. A lot of the jokes fall flat, and its pop culture references, from Mariachi versions of Radiohead’s “Creep” and that Mumford & Sons song that sounds like all the other Mumford & Sons songs, to Ice Cube’s character telling us that it really was a good day, don’t really work.
But while the story is a bit cliché and a bit muddled, The Book of Life just about gets away with it thanks to its colourful charm. It also deserves a lot of praise for talking about death to children in a way that is light-hearted enough to not upset them while being at the same time fully respectful of the issue itself. It’s a tricky balance that it just about pulls it off.