Hello what do we have here... A colourful children’s animated feature that focuses on Mexican culture, death, and spirits of the afterworld? Dia de Muertos! This can’t be Pixar then...
From Mexican director Jorge R. Gutierrez, this lavish visual feast bears the fingerprints of its producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy 1 & 2) all over it. And that’s a good thing, believe me! The Book of Life is a story set during the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday where the living visit the graves of their deceased loved ones and celebrate their former life, and also seek guidance or comfort.
And there’s a love-triangle story too. Pitting together two childhood friends – Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) – who both had crushes on Maria (Zoe Saldana), who left their village as a girl and returned many years later a beautiful woman. Joaquin is the more masculine – a butch master soldier, while Manolo is the romantic dreamer – he is forced to train as a bullfighter to continue his family’s heritage, but his true love is to play guitar and sing. Aww how lovely.
But the plot thickens... The film also pits two warring spirits against each other. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) rules the spiritworld above: The Land of the Remembered, where the spirits live on with their memories kept by their loved ones. Xibalba (Ron Perlman) controls the underworld below: The Land of the Forgotten, where forgotten souls decay into oblivion. They have a wager on which one of the young heroes will win the heart of Maria and marry her. The stakes are high, for the loser of the bet will be banished to rule The Land of the Forgotten forever.
The first thing that hits you when you view The Book of Life is the stunning visual style. The characters appear to be crafted colourful wooden puppets brought to life. In part this is due to the story being told by a museum tour guide to a bunch of kids, who uses wooden puppets to illustrate the story. But mainly as it captures the wonderful iconography of Day of the Dead puppets. The attention to detail in the character designs is truly eye-popping. And being a story about death, it is of no surprise that many characters die at one point or another and the journeys into the spiritworlds are absolutely wonderful, plunging you into vibrantly coloured landscapes, stunningly decorated skulls, and Day of the Dead art galore. The world is totally immersive.
The tone of the film itself is very well balanced. The Book of Life never feels the need to resort to slapstick humour, double entendres, or any other shtick that other animated features are prone to. For a U-certificated animated movie that deals with death and extensive use of skull imagery, it remains light-hearted, fun and captivating.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Life and recommend it to anyone who may be growing tired of the current formulaic state of animated fare. This one really stands out from the crowd in eye-popping fashion and makes for an enjoyable and entertaining 95 minutes.