Amidst all of horror movies coming out in honor of Halloween, The Book of Life celebrates a rather different holiday: the Mexican Day of the Dead. And while, as a movie, it has its flaws, Book of Life is like a great party—filled with wondrous decorations, interesting people, lots of fun, and a valuable message about the holiday.
Director Jorge Gutierrez wanted to make a movie that celebrates his personal obsessions, and for better or worse, that is precisely what The Book of Life is. This is a movie that is clearly made with love, and that wears its affection for Mexican art and culture, English-language pop music, and animation itself on its sleeve.
The story itself centers around three friends: Manolo (Diego Luna), latest in a line of bullfighters with more courage than sense, Joaquín (Channing Tatum), who longs for the bandit-fighting glory of his late father, and María (Zoe Saldana), the spunky daughter of the town's leader and a budding animal rights activist. As children, this trio becomes the subject of a divine wager. The beautiful and (literally) fiery La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and the scheming Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, bet on which boy will eventually win María's hand. La Muerte chooses sweet Manolo as her champion and Xibalba chooses bold Joaquín as his.
Because of circumstances in their childhoods (and a little meddling from Xibalba), the three friends grow up in very different ways. Manolo becomes a talented bullfighter, but one morally opposed to "finishing" (which is to say killing) the bull. (It's hard to say which disappoints his father more, Manolo's refusal to kill or his deep heartfelt wish to become a musician.) Joaquín gets the martial glory he craves, but without having to experience true bravery. María is sent to boarding school in Spain, where she falls in love with art and remains fiercely independent.
When the three friends reunite, there is still a lot of affection between them, but it becomes clear that María has more in common with Manolo than with Joaquín. Her courtship is complicated, however, by a gang of monstrous bandits that threatens to wipe their hometown off the map. Plus, there is Xibalba's interference, which eventually sends Manolo on a journey through the afterlife, including the endless party that is the Land of the Remembered and the grim Land of the Forgotten.
While so many CG animators look to ape the smooth-skinned, plasticine figure style of Pixar and Dreamworks, Gutierrez gives Book of Life a look that is all its own. It's actually a story within a story, told to a group of museum visitors, and so all of our main characters are played by wooden dolls. This adds a fable-like tone to the whole tale, but doesn't detract from the action or emotion that we see on-screen. And the character designs are nothing short of delightful, sometimes beautiful, sometimes silly, and sometimes grotesque. Sometimes it feels as if Chuck Jones, John Kricfalusi, and the fellows from Aardman animation are all having a fight inside Gutierrez's brain.
That's before we even get to the set designs, which are alone almost worth the price of admission. One of the many reasons that I wish the movie spent more time in the afterlife is because so many fascinating visual ideas whip past our eyeballs at lightning speed.
From a storytelling perspective, however, The Book of Life doesn't quite live up to its potential. Somewhere late in the second act, it becomes clear that somewhere beneath all these wonderful ideas is a truly amazing fantasy movie that never ultimately emerges. It seems that Gutierrez was excited to pack every notion he had into the movie, but was reluctant to edit it down into a stronger narrative.
Still, those notions are great fun to watch, and some of them are downright brilliant. Gutierrez plays with a lot of aspects of Mexican culture, from mariachi to bullfighting to lucha libre, with visual nods to the idea that a single family tree might boast both Aztecs and conquistadors. And watch for Plácido Domingo as a dead bullfighter who always wanted to be an opera singer.
And, as an antidote to all the horror movies of October, Book of Life is a very nice film, one that aims to be upbeat and to capture the meaning behind the holiday it celebrates. We may adore the sugar skulls and skeleton makeup that comes with the Day of the Dead, but Book of Life digs deeper. It asks us to remember the people who came before us as part of our quest become better people. We may honor the dead, the movie tells us, but we should also learn from their lives—their joys, their mistakes, their regrets. We can celebrate our families, it says, without being slaves to their legacies. Like the Day of the Dead itself, The Book of Life is filled with delightful visual trappings, but it's that heartfelt message that sticks with us in the end.