The Book of Life
The Book of Life represents Guillermo del Toro's most hands-on foray (to date) into the realm of family friendly entertainment; this is closer in tone and sensibility to one of Tim Burton's offbeat animated films than one of Pixar's more "vanilla" productions. The visual aesthetic is unusual with the characters being modeled as 3-D wooden puppets. I was reminded of a more polished version of some of the old live action TV Christmas specials. Background detail doesn't match that of many other big budget animated films but the presentation is quirky enough to make this less important. The 3-D, however, is disappointing. It adds nothing and is so low-key that it might as well not be there.
The Book of Life opens in a modern-day setting with a conventional animated style. A group of rambunctious kids visiting a museum hear a story excerpted from "The Book of Life" by their tour guide (voice of Christina Applegate). This tale takes place in long-ago Mexico and revolves around November 2, The Day of the Dead. Two boys, aspiring bull fighter and guitar player Manolo (Diego Luna) and would-be champion and defender of the town Joaquin (Channing Tatum), are in love with the same girl, a spirited firebrand named Maria (Zoe Saldana). Observing their interactions, the gods place a bet on which boy will win Maria's hand. La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), the ruler of the bright, heavenly Land of the Remembered, chooses Manolo. Her opponent (and spouse), Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the lord of the gray, hellish Land of the Forgotten, opts for Joaquim. Once the children have reached adulthood, it's apparent that Maria prefers the sensitive Manolo but everyone else believes Joaquin to be a better match. Events conspire to keep couple apart and send Manolo on a quest beyond death to the three realms of the afterlife.
There's a lot going on for a 90-minute movie, with a love triangle, an earthly battle between villagers and bandits, renditions of various pop tunes, and Manolo's odyssey into The Land of the Remembered, The Land of the Forgotten, and The Cave of Souls (presided over by The Candle Maker, whose voice is provided by Ice Cube). The Book of Life moves breezily from one scene to the next, keeping the pace brisk and rarely skipping a beat. The plot may be a little convoluted for younger viewers but that might not matter much. The modern-day framing device is awkward; occasionally pulling back from the main story to return to the museum can be distracting and the eventual payoff isn't worth it.
Manolo, whose voice (both when speaking and singing) is provided by the always-likeable Diego Luna, immediately captures the viewer's sympathy with his unwillingness to kill a bull in the ring. He becomes the filmmakers' means to emphasize the central theme of self-determination. Zoe Saldana makes Maria cheeky and forthright; this is no damsel-in-distress. When the bandit army arrives, she's the first one to grab a sword and issues the "Once more into the breach" speech. Channing Tatum's Joaquin borrows more than a few personality traits from Beauty and the Beast's Gaston (his idea of a romantic gift is an autographed picture of himself) but he replaces the latter's cruelty with a naïve likeability. Gaston was evil; Joaquin is just a little self-absorbed. The part of the "cute animal" is filled by a pig, but he's not a big part of the proceedings and he doesn't talk.
Del Toro and director Jorge R. Gutierrez have worked diligently to distinguish The Book of Life from every other animated film out there. It takes chances visually, with every character having a Pinocchio-influenced appearance. The settings and backdrops skew far from photorealism. The incorporation of pop tunes (including an odd rendition of Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?") doesn't work as well as in (for example) Shrek; there are times when it's hard to shake the feeling that Manolo is a boy band singer.
In general, animated films have underperformed in 2014 and, while The Book of Life lacks the pedigree and broad-based appeal to reverse the trend, it will be interesting to see how it performs with Latino audiences. Although del Toro and Gutierrez didn't tailor the movie to a specific demographic, some of the imagery may be familiar to those with an understanding of cultural elements from south of the border. In broader terms, however, The Book of Life has sufficient mainstream appeal to provide solid entertainment for parents and children.