“The Book of Life” is Reel FX Animation Studios’ follow-up to last year’s Thanksgiving-themed comedy “Free Birds”. Here the studio takes-on a different holiday with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro and visionary director Jorge Gutierrez, as “The Book of Life” breathes new life into the Mexican fiesta – The Day of the Dead.
Gutierrez uses a clever device – having the story not only narrated, but designed around a group of school kids visiting a museum. Mary Beth, their tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) takes them to a special section of the museum where she unveils the The Book of Life, and proceeds to tell them the epic saga of three childhood friends living in Mexico – two boys and a girl. Young Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with the lovely Maria. When she is forced by her father to attend boarding school in Spain, the boys promise to wait for her to return.
The rulers of the two afterlife worlds – the kind and beautiful La Muerte of The Land of the Remembered (home of the dead who the living still think about) and the evil Xibalba of The Land of the Forgotten (for those who die and are forgotten), make a wager on which boy will end-up marrying Maria when she comes back home.
Years later Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) has become a proud and powerful soldier, as his father once was, willing to protect the small town from invaders. Manolo (Diego Luna) has also followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a bullfighter. But his true passion is music. When Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) finally returns, she is pressured into making a choice between the two suitors. But things get complicated when Xibalba, worried he’s about to lose the bet, decides to interfere, sending Manolo on a wild journey that tests his courage and determination to win Maria’s hand.
“The Book of Life” is a comedy, a spiritual adventure, and a musical. But above all, it’s a love story. The film moves along at such a frantic pace that, at times, it’s difficult to keep-up with all the dialogue and the frenetic action. There are a lot of attempts at humor, including plenty of goofy characters and situations. Much of it doesn’t work, but there are a few bright spots, including the students, who pop in and out throughout the film and Ice Cube, who appears late as the mighty Candle Maker.
By far the best thing about “The Book of Life” is the remarkably gorgeous CGI. You could argue that “The Book of Life” has now written its own chapter in The Book of Beautiful Movie Animation. The characters in this “story within a story” are designed as marionette puppet-like toy figures, each with a specific
look that makes it unique, vibrant and extremely fun, especially for a young audience. And The Land of the Remembered is a visual wonderland of fantastic images and brilliant colors. And there are several basic but very sweet and effective songs.
“The Book of Life” is rated PG for some mild action/violence and dramatic elements, mostly dealing with the concepts of death and the afterlife in inventive and appropriate ways. While the script isn’t on the same level as the best of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Sony Animation, the film has a big heart, providing a look at this culture and its emphasis on family and true love. This is a solid, a pre-Halloween choice for families and a must for anyone who wants to see how imagination and talent can produce the next great accomplishment in the animation art form.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Book of Life” gets a C+.