Nutshell: I give The Book of Life an A-. A bouncy, fizzy-fun animated pic about a cool but little-understood (in the USA) Mexican holiday. Wonderful voice performances and gorgeous animation will please young and old alike, and the songs will have you dancing out of the theater. I’m gonna try to make Chuy the official mascot of Pigtown, Baltimore. It could happen.
I love Halloween, don’t you? Of course you do. How about Day of the Dead? No, not the Romero zombie movie, I’m talking about the Mexican holiday that follows hard on the heels of our beloved All Hallows Eve. From 10/31 to 11/2, Mexican families honor those who have passed away, building altars and visiting cemeteries. Candy, marigolds, candles and images of the departed are all a part of these festivities. In America, we’ve seen sugar skulls, gorgeous calavera makeup, and even parades if you’re lucky enough to live in an area where there’s a large celebration. But outside of the trappings, we Americans know very little of the traditions behind the holiday. The Book of Life may just change that; Life is an animated festival that puts the emphasis on fun and family but still manages to educate while it entertains.
It’s a tale as old as time; three young children become fast friends. But the two boys, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) both find themselves falling in love with young Maria (Zoe Saldana). They still manage to pal around and get themselves into the usual little kid troubles here and there, though. But when Maria tries to do a good dead, things backfire and she’s sent away to boarding school. Manolo learns to be a bullfighter but secretly longs to sing, and Joaquin becomes a famous soldier with his own secret. Meanwhile, rulers of the underworld La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) make a wager based on which one of the boys will ultimately win Maria’s heart. When Manolo dies suddenly, the wager seems to have come to it’s completion. But will Manolo’s love give him the power to come back to his beloved? C’mon now y’all, you know this one.
Director/screenwriter Jorge R. Gutierrez keeps the story moving while dropping bits of knowledge on viewers by way of a museum tour guide cluing in a group of kids onto the Day of the Dead by way of this particular love story. But it’s not all about the love triangle; what lifts The Book of Life above the usual boy-meets-girl storyline is how it also shows how Manolo and Joaquin are tied up in what their families expect of them. They’re not only fighting for the love of a woman, they’re trying to see how their lives can be their own while still honoring their families. Pretty deep stuff, but the script swings it easily.
So do the voice actors, a mix of American and Mexican stars that come together perfectly. There are a few standouts even in the cameo roles, especially Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, Plácido Domingo, Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin. Ice Cube plays The Candle Maker, a spirit that exists in the Cave of Souls, or gateway between the living and the dead. He seems like a creator god, with his candles, each representing a human life. It’s an interesting concept, but the character is a bit too bouncy, and instead of thinking he’s a bon vivant, he was a bit off-kilter, and I never quite warmed up to him. Luckily, he’s not in the movie for very long. It’s the only hiccup in an otherwise darn-near perfect movie.
Shout-out to the glorious animators; the characters here all look like marionettes made of wood, but the gaps and joints probably help make the transition from living to the world of the dead a bit easier for the little ones. And it doesn’t mean the crew took any shortcuts, as the entire film is a visual feast, and I’m someone that never thought she’d ever use the term “visual feast” in her entire life. The details, depth and design (3 d’s!) are absolutely stunning. I have to admit I spent the beginning of several scenes — especially those dealing with the lands of the dead — slackjawed. Do spring for 3D if you can, because you’ll want to check out every nook and cranny. My absolute favorite bit of animation is Maria’s little pig/BFF, Chuy. Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a cute pig. Though trickster spirit Xibalba gets an honorable mention for looking like My Little Pony’s Discord all gussied up for Day of the Dead. Who doesn’t love Discord?
Music? Tons of it, and it’s all good. Great end credits song, and final scene song too. Nice use of bits from familiar classic pop/rock at first; songs like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Creep” tie together the familiar with the not-so familiar for American audiences. The soundtrack branches out to original pieces, with “No Matter Where You Are” and the hooky, thoroughly enjoyable earworm “Live Life” particular standouts. Oscar Watch: I’m betting “Live Life” will be getting a Best Original Song nod this year. Callin’ it now.
Final note: don’t get to the theater late; be sure to check out the festive 20th Century Fox logo all kitted out for Day of the Dead, complete with sugar-skull zero. Enjoy!