The Book of Life (2014) / Animation-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast (voices): Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui
Small role (voices): Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Eugenio Derbez, Cheech Marin, Guillermo del Toro
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Screenplay: Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Landale

Review published October 23, 2014

Veteran animated character designer Jorge R. Gutierrez writes and directs this inspired animated fantasy, produced by Guillermo del Toro, surrounding the annual Mexican Dia de los Muertos (aka, Day of the Dead) celebration that occurs from Halloween through All Souls' Day (October 21 to November 2), whereby the spirits of the dead receive gifts left for them by those living who remember and honor them, among other celebratory customs.

Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy, Out of the Furnace) voices Maria, who becomes one of the points in a lifelong love triangle played out with her childhood friends Joaquin (Tatum, 22 Jump Street) and Manolo (Luna, Elysium), who all hail from the small Mexican town of San Angel.  The main plot deals with a bet between Xibalba (Perlman, Pacific Rim), the ruler of the dreaded Land of the Forgotten, where those who are not remembered by anyone living go to dwell in loneliness and despair, and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, No Good Deed), the leader of the Land of the Remembered.  The terms are set based on which mortal suitor, lover Manolo or fighter Joaquin, wins the lovely Maria's hand in marriage, with Xibalba taking over the Land of the Remembered upon Joaquin's victory, or promising to no longer interfere with mortals in the Land of the Living if Manolo takes Maria down the aisle. 

With the dreaded monster known as the Chakal looming to destroy the city, both men must prove their mettle and be deemed worthy for not only Maria's hand in marriage, but also to be the savior for his people. Pacifist Manolo is a natural romantic, just the kind of guy Maria would swoon for, but, luckily for decorated soldier Joaquin, Xibalba isn't above fudging the rules to win a bet.

The best aspect to The Book of Life is its overall Latin American folk art design, with fun and exaggerated marionette-like character models, a gorgeous color palette, and a smoothly textured flow to the movements that is truly remarkable, especially given how many moving characters are often on the screen at once.  It really looks like no other movie out there.  With good voice work, punchy energy, and many new and interesting ideas that set the film apart from an already crowded 3D animated pack, it's a real treat for the eyes, in addition to fun escapism.

The downsides of the film aren't many, but they can be significant enough to keep a good movie from being a great one.  First, it does take a while to become interesting, as there is a framing device of a museum tour guide giving a group of young children a lesson on this story, which isn't very rife with comic possibilities and only tangentially relates to the story she tells.  Director Gutierrez cites The Princess Bride as an influence, which also has a similar framing device, but it works better in that story than it does here.

Second, even when getting to the actual story, there is an overabundance of side characters that are crammed in that really hold no importance to the tale except to provide momentary entertainment that may or may not happen. It makes little sense, were this a tour guide telling a group of kids about the story of the trio at the heart of the movie, to include them in her yarn, especially since she would need several dozen marionettes on (and in) hand.  I suppose it does make sense that the characters might sing modern-ish pop hits (Radiohead, Biz Markie, etc.) instead of old standards if a young woman is relating the story, but in the end, even this doesn't quite hold (you'll know what I mean after you see the film).  Plus, it also doesn't allow for much-needed moments of reflection or poignancy to settle in when so many characters, so much noise, and so many moving parts are all over the screen.  It's a bit too busy, too full of perpetual distractions, to strike its major themes home.

Nevertheless, once the movie settles in to the main story at hand, it reaps substantial rewards, more than enough to make it a worthwhile adventure, especially at a mere 95 minutes in length. Though the movie is about such things as death and the macabre, it's more a celebration of life, not only for the living, of course, but also for those who live on in our hearts and minds, suggesting that one's existence doesn't end even when their body does.  Plus, it does extol a vision of a pleasant afterlife in which the deceased can be reunited with those loved ones who've also met a prior demise, and tells people still alive to continue to celebrate their ancestry, lest they be truly forgotten forever.  But, most of all, its message to kids is to find their own path, and try to live a life worth remembering.  Like Manolo, The Book of Life is, deep down, a sentimental charmer.

Qwipster's rating::

2014 Vince Leo