The first thing one notices about The Book of Life, the debut animated offering from director Jorge R. Gutierrez, is just how lovely and textured everything is. The movie is a feast for the eyes, which are constantly drawn to all kinds of interesting detail work that truly brings Gutierrez’s creations to life. Aside from his luscious and saturated colors, his main characters are Mexican puppets, complete with striated wooden surfaces and held together by joints between the limbs. This gives the impression that The Book of Life could almost be seen as an elaborate puppet show staged at a festival on the Day of the Dead, a holiday that factors heavily in the movie’s Latino-influenced storyline.
The story is actually told within a framing device by a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate), who escorts a clutch of unruly kids into a special room at the museum and shows them the title tome, in which the story of everyone’s lives is written (thank the universe she didn’t stop on mine). This provides us entry into the tale of three good childhood friends in the town of San Angel — Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) — who grow up to be, respectively, a bullfighter who won’t kill bulls and prefers to play music, a cocky yet courageous soldier, and the fiercely independent woman whose hand they both want.
Their lives are being watched over by two spirits — the kind La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and the devious Xibalba (Ron Perlman, because of course). La Muerte rules the Land of the Remembered, a sort of heaven where everyone is always celebrating in a wonderful afterlife, while Xibalba oversees the Land of the Forgotten, which is just as lonely, colorless and bleak as it sounds. So Xibalba offers a bet: if Maria agrees to marry Joaquin, La Muerte will assume command in the Land of the Forgotten while Xibalba will party in the Land of the Remembered. If Maria decides on Manolo, Xibalba must stop screwing around with these bets that change the course of people’s lives. Xibalba, naturally, has a plan to give Joaquin the edge.
If the plot sounds a bit complicated, well, it is. And that’s before we get to the musical numbers, the army of bandits marching on the town and more. Gutierrez packs it all in and keeps it all moving, although you can ultimately see where the story will end up. Even with that, however, the director (who also co-wrote this) has a few nice touches up his sleeve: Joaquin, ostensibly a bad guy, never comes across as such and remains mostly honorable even if he is narcissistic, while the somewhat more villainous Xibalba eventually keeps his word. Maria is a skilled, no-nonsense woman who can handle herself in a brawl and is not some ornament waiting to be affixed to one man’s arm. There’s a passion to the film’s notions of romance and friendship that is invigorating.
That’s not to say that all is smooth sailing. The aforementioned musical numbers are modern pop hits from the likes of Mumford & Sons and Radiohead, but even filtered through mariachi music they seem like pointless and incongruous attempts at soundtrack filler meant to attract a certain youth demographic. That same desire seems to have been at work in casting Ice Cube as the voice of the Candle Maker, the story’s version of God, whose streetwise patter just comes across as condescending. Some of the other jokes and asides fall flat as well, a few veering dangerously close to cheap-seats toilet humor before Gutierrez thankfully pulls them back.
But overall this is a splendid debut for Gutierrez that I found myself getting caught up in, even though animation is not exactly my first pick when I’m on line at the multiplex. Better yet, it’s wonderfully original in its use of Mexican art, folklore and myth as the canvas for its tale, although the movie never feels pointed too specifically at a Latino audience. The influence of producer Guillermo Del Toro is strongly felt too, not just in the casting of his muse Perlman but in the way the worlds of the living and the dead overlap each other with beauty and grotesquerie co-existing in both. It’s family entertainment that doesn’t talk down to anyone, it’s almost always visually striking, and it celebrates and glorifies storytelling — a craft that can bring puppets to life and is as important to our existence as breathing.
The Book of Life is out in theaters now.