Guillermo del Toro has brought us the gorgeous and gruesome horror-filled fable Pan's Labyrinth, the eccentric and eerie superhero story Hellboy, and the stunning sci-fi spectacle that is Pacific Rim. Now, the writer-director has played producer to transform Mexico's Day of the Dead into a charming cinematic spectacle called The Book of Life.
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, this animated adventure begins with a batch of unruly school children on a field trip to an austere-looking museum. But ushered down a secret passageway by a pretty tour guide, they're exposed to a dazzling exhibit of the culture of Mexico and the titular book, which contains the story of Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana), three friends whose love triangle becomes a game to the lords of the underworld Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate de Castillo). Each of these rulers of the dead picks a champion, and bets on which will marry the fair and feisty Maria. But don't expect the monstrous Xibalba to play fair.
As you might well expect from a movie that deals heavily in the traditions of the Day of the Dead, there is a lot of death and ghosts in The Book of Life. However, the film is surprisingly breezy. For one thing, it shies away from words like "ghost" and "death," favoring instead "the remembered" and "passed." So when one of our heroes dies, it's not so traumatic as it might be, as he is soon surrounded by a band of his remembered ancestors, each with plenty of pop and (after)life. Further distancing the film's life and death tale from a grim reality is that its central heroes are made to look like marionettes, down to hinged joints and wood textured faces. Basically, it's a movie all about mortality and a trickster devil. Yet it's unlikely to terrify even the most sensitive of kids.
Like past Fox offerings Epic and Ice Age, there's a certain lack of detail to this animation that makes it feel mid-level at best when compared to the likes of Pixar, Laika or DreamWorks. The Book of Life's animation style--with its simple shapes and loud colors--seems the kind of thing you might trip upon in deep Netflix browsing. But what it lacks in awe-inspiring artistry, it makes up for in energy. The Book of Life is briskly paced, racing through its set-up--first of the field trip bookend device, then the intro of the trio of heroes as children--to its second act. From there, the plot gets unwieldy. But its narrative is so stuffed with kooky characters, richly adorned settings and jaunty song numbers that kids are unlikely to be bothered by the sloppy storytelling.
The voice cast adds spirit to these simply constructed CGI marionettes. Diego Luna is downright delightful as Manolo, a bullfighter who yearns to be a musician and who reveals his heartache through a surprisingly lovely rendition of Radiohead's "Creep." Channing Tatum does lunk-headed well as the burly and egomaniacal soldier Joaquin, who makes the ladies swoon like an imitation Gaston a la Beauty and the Beast. Zoe Saldana brings some welcomed moxie to Maria. But despite the script's shoving a sword in her hand on occasion and pointing out her love of books, the character is nonetheless little more than a trophy and a damsel in distress as far as the plot is concerned.
The most exciting character is easily the villainous Xibalba. Ron Perlman's deep voice clearly revels in creating a sinister character who mercilessly manipulates when he's not flirting with the love lady La Muerte (a serviceable Kate del Castillo). While everyone else looks like vintage toys or delectable Day of the Dead candy skulls, Xibalba looks like a radioactive brother of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic's mischievous Dischord. Then Perlman brings a thick layer of eager malevolence, reminiscent of James Woods evil underworld ruler in the animate Hercules. Xibalba may be a collage of prior animated villains, but all the same he brings an enticing sense of danger and thrill to this sugar-coated adventure that is greatly appreciated.
All in all, The Book of Life is entertaining, and at times clever in the way it folds in modern pop songs into its fable of love, life and death. The exuberance of Mexican culture and the macabre art of its Day of the Dead offer rich opportunities for wonder and spectacle. The characters are charming. The message is sweet. Kids will likely eat up this candy-colored confection offered up just in time for Halloween/Day of the Dead. But Fox Animation still lacks that something extra, that compelling plot and jaw-dropping level of animation detail that makes their movies a must-see for anyone over the age of ten.