Producer Guillermo del Toro still has it. He and first time feature-film director Jorge Gutierrez execute a somewhat morbid yet entirely charming tale in The Book of Life, a kid’s movie which revolves entirely around death. Well, there’s some cultural celebration and a love story in there too. Plus some striking animation work — full of pops of color and fascinating pieces of folk art — along with a very game voice cast. In short, this is a fun movie and a potential holiday staple for anyone interested in the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. This is a story of family, community, and the afterlife.
Book of Life frames its central tale through a museum guide, who tells the story by way of lovingly animated wooden toys (for the living) and skeletons (for the dead). Death is presented as a positive occurence and nothing to be afraid of — if one believes that a reunion with long-lost family members is in the cards. The way this movie paints it, the Day of the Dead seems a hell of a lot more interesting than boring old Halloween. Kids may not wholly agree to give up their Iron Man costumes after watching this movie, but they’ll learn something about the culture of Mexico, which just happens to be the “center of the universe” during this story.
The story is somewhat overfilled. The main action revolves around a hell of a bet. Two gods, Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), preside over the underworld. These lords engage in a turf war, during which they bet upon a love triangle amongst the living. Essentially, the gods spar over the romantic fate of a girl named Maria (Zoe Saldana). Yes, it’s slightly disappointing that a love triangle is the basic set-up for this story. Yet Maria is so headstrong and independent that she’s able to make her own choices, in love and in everything. Further, the romantic subplot is simply a means to achieving the rest of the film’s bits and pieces.
La Muerte wagers that Maria’s heart will be won by a musician/toreador Manolo (Diego Luna); Xibalba favors celebrated soldier/meathead Joaquin (Channing Tatum - what?), and this sneaky god cheats a little bit (a lot, actually) to try and get his way. Before you know it, Manolo has been tricked into entering the underworld. He must return to the land of the living with the help of his dead family members. Not only is Maria’s love at stake, but also the safety of everyone because … bandits threaten civilization’s very existence.
Yeah, that bandit part doesn’t make much sense. That detail lends a sense of adventure to the film, but it wasn’t necessary. That’s the main issue I have with The Book of LIfe: The story is bulky and filled with too much detail, too many characters and sh*t flying everywhere. The script isn’t particularly skillful in juggling all these elements, and the dialogue is rote. The conclusion is predictable too, but the visual spectacle and winsome characters by themselves provide a much better 1/2 film than other similar efforts. This is a smarter than average kid’s film, but it isn’t stellar.
I can’t rave about the visual aspect of this movie enough, and the Land of the Remembered (as opposed to that of the Forgotten) is a place where one wouldn’t mind spending all of eternity. The dead really know how to throw a good party. With that said, the film doesn’t sound as good as it looks. Channing Tatum was hired to voice a lunkhead, but he stands out like a bit of gimmicky stunt casting. Parts of the soundtrack fall extremely short. Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and Radiohead’s “Creep” are a bit, well, disconcerting to hear in a kid’s movie. Both those songs and One Republic feel out of place in a tale that revels within Mexican culture and history. I guess it could have been worse (Coldplay, anyone?).
The Book of Life is a flawed movie but much better than one would expect. Kids will learn all about the Day of the Dead customs and how the Mexican culture honors and remembers the dead, so that the dead may collect offerings from the living. Yet there’s simply too much story to swallow, and the lessons learned by the characters (carve out your own destiny, etc.) aren’t much different than those of any other kid’s movie. Still, this movie has sugar skulls and stresses the value of remembering loved ones. What’s not to love?
Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. can be found at Celebitchy.