Directed by: Jorge R. Gutierrez.
Written by: Jorge R. Gutierrez & Douglas Langdale.
Starring: Diego Luna (Manolo), Zoe Saldana (Maria), Channing Tatum (Joaquin), Ron Perlman (Xibalba), Christina Applegate (Mary Beth), Ice Cube (Candle Maker), Kate del Castillo (La Muerte), Hector Elizondo (Carlos Sanchez), Danny Trejo (Skeleton Luis), Carlos Alazraqui (General Posada / Dali / Chuy), Ana de la Reguera (Skeleton Carmen), Emil-Bastien Bouffard (Young Manolo), Elias Garza (Young Joaquin), Genesis Ochoa (Young Maria), Plácido Domingo (Skeleton Jorge), Jorge R. Gutierrez (Skeleton Carmelo).
For the second time in a month, we have an animated film for children that touches on darker themes than we usually see in children’s films. But while The Boxtrolls was a dark film visually, and had some moments that would truly be scary for smaller children, The Book of Life is a film brimming with colors and life. The film looks great from start to finish – and if I end up preferring The Boxtrolls it’s more because it seems more aimed at my sensibilities than The Book of Life does.
The film, by first time director Jorge R. Gutierrez, centers on the well-known Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead. The character design is based on the puppets and carved figurines associated with the holiday, and are ingeniously designed and complex. The film has a framing device of a Museum tour Guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling the tale of a love triangle in a Mexican of yesteryear. As children, Manolo, Maria and Joaquin are inseparable. The sensitive Manolo loves music, and wants nothing else but to play his guitar – although his father makes it clear that their family are all bullfighters. Joaquin is a more “manly man” – wearing a fake mustache in childhood, and wants nothing more than to be a brave hero. Maria is an empowered female animated character – smart, tough, wickedly funny – who loves both of her friends. The trio is torn apart when she is sent to Spain for her education – returning years later, which only resumes the love triangle.
Two deities – La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) – who were once in love – make a bet on these three children. La Muerte, who rules of the Land of the Remembered, the vibrant, lively part of the afterlife, believes the sensitive Manolo will win Maria’s hand. Xibalba, who rules over the darker Land of the Forgotten afterlife, thinks it will be manly Joaquin. Both help their chosen man in childhood – and they grow up to become who each wants them to be. Who will Maria choose? She is her own woman, and will not be pressured by her father – the General who runs the town – into choosing Joaquin – even if it will make him stay, and fight off the bandit who threatens the town.
The film, is if anything, a little too busy for its own good. Gutierrez admirably tries to combine all his different story threads into the film – but the film takes a little too long to get going (the story that the trailer sells doesn’t really appear until about an hour into the film). He has to juggle so many characters and plot threads – and he does a decent job, but perhaps a little less ambition would have yielded a better film.
He is helped by the voice cast – especially Zoe Saldana, perfect as the empowered adult Maria, and Channing Tatum, amusingly brash and over-confident as Joaquin. And even if the film seems to be constantly on the movie – never letting it settle truly into its story, it is always a colorful marvel to look at. There are darker elements to the story (one of the kids in the tour group does ask the guide at one point “What kind of story is this? We’re just kids”) – and while Gutierrez doesn’t dwell on this darkness, he doesn’t ignore it either – treating the darker elements with a directness that is refreshing.
The film is a joy to watch, but unlike something like The Boxtrolls, or other, stronger animated film, it doesn’t really stay with you in the same way. It's fun, and despite its dark elements, more family friendly than The Boxtrolls. But it doesn’t quite measure up to that film. But for a family film market –starved for entertainment – The Book of Life delivers.