The Book of Life
It isn’t hard to pinpoint precisely when it becomes clear that The Book of Life isn’t just another CG kids movie. The moment comes approximately 20 minutes into the movie, when a wooden puppet (voiced by Diego Luna) expresses the shame he’s brought to his family by singing an impromptu mariachi cover of Radiohead’s “Creep." While that particular example may not seem all that far removed from the likes of Happy Feet, indulging in a a cutesy version of the misanthropic anthem is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how The Book of Life film gently validates non-white culture for a young audience that most American animation would rather pander to than represent.
Most meaningfully, that culture assumes a Mexican flavor. The best thing to which producer Guillermo del Toro has attached his name since Hellboy II, The Book of Life is to the Day of the Dead what The Nightmare Before Christmas is to, well, pretty much everything between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. It’s not hard to imagine the joy that a painfully underrepresented group of children will experience to finally have a movie like this that speaks to them, if not necessarily in their language, and writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez obviously understands that burden in a way that was completely lost on Adam Sandler and whomever else he coerced into making Eight Crazy Nights (thus forever ruining the concept of Hanukkah movies for a generation of Jewish kids who had the foresight not to ask for one). The Book of Life isn’t just hyperactive, charming, and visually audacious, it’s also accessible. It’s no easy feat to tell a compelling kid-friendly story about such an implicitly morbid affair, but it’s a compromise that Mexican families have managed to reconcile for centuries.
In fact, the film is so inviting for young audiences that its framing device literally instructs children how to watch it. The Book of Life begins with a shrill and generically animated prologue in which a gaggle of bored school kids—too culturally incurious to appreciate their field trip to the local museum—are given a special treat by their scheming tour guide (Zoe Saldana). The tour guide takes the shrill visitors through a secret entrance, where she delights them with an incredibly colorful tale about two young boys who grew up in love with the same woman. The story within the story breathlessly follows the trio of Manolo (Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Maria (Saldana again). Manolo is the heir to his village’s proudest family of bullfighters, but he dreams of being a singer. Joaquin has less trouble conforming to the expectations of his parents’ generation, as the macho muscle-head matures into the relentlessly vain military officer that everyone had hoped he would. Both of them love Maria, the local beauty, and will travel to the depths of the underworld to win her hand in marriage, even if the girl has never seemed particularly keen on being anyone’s wife.
There’s a lot of other noise packed into this 95-minute blitz of a movie, but, at heart, The Book of Life is essentially a retelling of the Orpheus myth that’s been reshaped into a love triangle. And it’s Gutierrez’s commitment to the mythic nature of his story that allows the film to so playfully embrace (and latently whitewash) the unique heritage from which it springs. Sharply contrasting with the basic and garishly rounded character models seen in the framing device—so sharply, in fact, that it plays like a pointed criticism of how bland CG animation has become—the Mexico in which the brunt of the film is set is a vibrant beautiful place that has obviously been designed with great care. That Gutierrez is never compelled to call attention to the fact that all of his major characters are sentient wooden dolls is a testament to the texture of the world he’s created, a world that marries its frenzied imagination with the visual coherence of a cultural cornerstone.
The voice actors are terrific (even though the inimitable talents of Hector Elizondo, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and other Latin American performers make it that much harder to reconcile the casting of a super famous gringo like Tatum), and the various cover songs overseen by renowned composer Gustavo Santaolalla are amusing (even though they sometimes dilute the specificity of the story). If the plot ultimately grows too manic and scattered to retain its emotional core, it does so as an excuse to present some of the most rapturous 3D animation in recent memory.
The film doesn’t dive into the underworld until the third act, but when it does, it’s like someone has flicked on the netherworld’s most elaborate black light poster. Channeling the orgiastic vibe of Rintaro’s Metropolis, Gutierrez explodes his film into a neon orgy that infuses The Land of the Dead with wild new life. By the time the story arrives at a cloying God-like character voiced by Ice Cube (complete with a wink wink N.W.A. reference), the whole thing has become so exuberant that it holds together via the centrifugal force of its imagination. For some kids, seeing will be believing. And for others, who may feel that a major movie has never so vividly represented them on screen, they won’t believe what they’re seeing.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.