Alibi V.23 No.42 • Oct 16-22, 2014 

Film Review

The Book of Life

Mexican-themed cartoon offers unexpected seasonal treats

The Book of Life ()

Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

Cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum

The Book of Life
“... Yeah, but the property taxes are killer.”

Just in time for Halloween—and more importantly Day of the Dead—comes the pleasantly offbeat, ethnically diverse family film The Book of Life. This fiesta-colored cartoon boasts a fairly complicated mythology—something about a magic tome that contains everyone’s predestined story, an afterlife segregated into the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, a rivalry between the eternal personification of death and an ancient Mayan god of the underworld, and a cosmic candlemaker who ... figures in there too somehow. The intricacies of “Who is that?” and “Where are they?” may be lost on younger viewers. But the film makes up for it in originality, unpredictability and sheer visual spectacle.

The angelic La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, Under The Same Moon) and the demonic Xibalba (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) rule respective sections of the afterlife. She gets the heavenly part, and he’s stuck with the hellish neighborhoods. This cosmology has got nothing to do with sins or good deeds. Instead, souls are segregated by whether they are remembered and celebrated during Mexico’s Day or the Dead, or left lost and forgotten with no living relatives. Unhappy with his bailiwick in the Land of the Forgotten, Xibalba offers up a wager. The two cosmic entities choose small-town childhood pals Manolo (Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) as their pawns. Manolo is a sensitive musician. Joaquin is a brave soldier. Both are in love with the mayor’s spunky daughter Maria (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek). If she falls in love with Manolo, La Muerte wins. If she goes for Joaquin, Xibalba triumphs.

This cosmology has got nothing to do with sins or good deeds. Instead, souls are segregated by whether they are remembered and celebrated during Mexico’s Day or the Dead, or left lost and forgotten with no living relatives.

Naturally Xibalba cheats, gifting Joaquin with a magical medal that renders him invulnerable. Soon he’s the hero of his hometown, having fought off countless bandits and grown a really manly mustache. Manolo, on the other hand, dreams of bucking his family’s generations-long career choice (bullfighting) and becoming a troubadour. The Book of Life does a nice job of avoiding good guy/bad guy stereotypes. Manolo and Joaquin are both honorable men and fast friends. Their rivalry for the hand of Maria never turns ugly or bitter. But just when it looks like Maria might choose romantic Manolo, Xibalba cheats again by killing the young lad and sending him to the land of the dead. Here’s where The Book of Life really kicks in, embracing Mexico’s rich Day of the Dead tradition.

Though animated through CGI, the film replicates the look of a stop-motion-animated film (like Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas). The characters are all presented as if they were wooden puppets, and the level of detail is astonishing. You could watch this film multiple times (and you just might), spotting new details each time amid the swirling sugar skull designs, intricate wooden limbs and lovingly patterned backdrops. It really is a wonder of design and a treat for the eyes.

The characters are all presented as if they were wooden puppets, and the level of detail is astonishing. You could watch this film multiple times (and you just might), spotting new details each time amid the swirling sugar skull designs, intricate wooden limbs and lovingly patterned backdrops.

The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), and he deserves a lot of praise for bringing the culture of his Mexican homeland to the big screen. Bonus points for dragging so many of his fellow countrymen with him to work in front of and behind the camera. The film is directed and co-written by Jorge R. Gutierrez—a writer, producer and character designer who has worked on “!Mucha Lucha!,” “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera” and “Mad.” He does an extremely credible job handling the film’s technical aspects. This is one of those rare films that’s actually worth the extra bucks to see it in 3D.

In addition to the visual delights, there are a handful of original musical numbers as well as some clever mariachi-ized appropriations of pop songs such as “I Will Wait” by Mumford & Sons and “Creep” by Radiohead. These songs work surprisingly well and don’t feel at all like the quickly dated pop cultural references in a few too many of Disney’s toons. (I’m sure modern kids just guffaw at the Taxi Driver and Wayne’s World jokes in Aladdin.)

Like a leftover trick-or-treat bag in the middle of November, once all the colorful delights have been devoured, there are a couple of unwanted scraps rattling around the bottom of the sack. The film’s backstory seems unnecessarily complicated, requiring a narrator (complete with her own visual aids) to spend a good 15 minutes explaining the setup. After that, however, the film bounces merrily along on its own rhythm. The film’s fixation on death and dying (“What is it with Mexicans and death?” asks one character) might be a little tough on the under-8 crowd. (The goth crowd, on the other hand, will love everything about this film—excepting the color palette.) In the end the script tries to drive home a few too many morals—everything from “Write your own story” to “Love takes courage” to “Bullfighting is bad.” All gripes are minor, however, when faced with the sheer, candy-coated exuberance The Book of Life has to offer.