THE BOOK OF LIFE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jorge R Gutierrez

Stars: voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Kate Del Castillo, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Danny Trejo, Hector Elizondo, Ice Cube, Placido Domingo.

“What is it with Mexicans and death?”

This is the sophomore animated film from Texas based animation studio Reel FX, who previously gave us Free Birds, about a couple of turkeys who travel back in time to change the Thanksgiving tradition. The Book Of Life centres around the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, and is steeped in Mexican lore and culture, and some understanding of this tradition helps to understand the setting. The film deals with themes of life, death, love, family, tradition, magic, and the supernatural. But some of the material is probably a bit too dark and scary for younger audiences.

This macabre animated Mexican flavoured romantic drama/comedy is set in the small village of San Angel and centres around a romantic triangle and the tradition of the Day of the Dead, a grim celebration of sorts in which families remember their departed. Maria is caught between two boys, best friends who have grown up together. Manolo wants to become a singer, but his father forces him to follow in the family tradition and train as a matador. Joaquin is the son of a military hero and is destined to follow him into the army. But after some youthful hijinks cause havoc in the town, Maria’s stern and proud father, who is also one of the town’s most respected leaders. sends her away to Europe to learn how to act like a proper young lady.

Years later Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana, better known for her roles in films like Avatar, etc) returns to San Angel a grown and cultured woman, and the rivalry between the two boys is rekindled. Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum in one of his first forays into animated film) try to impress Maria. Joaquin has become a hero, and he has been given a magical amulet that means he cannot be killed. But he is blind to the sensitivity he needs to show in order to win over Maria, who is smitten by Manolo’s smooth crooning and daring exploits in the bullring, especially after he refuses to kill a bull.

But little do they know that they are but mere pawns in a playful bet between two rival Gods – La Muerte (voiced by popular Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, from Weeds, etc), who is the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and the more malevolent Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman, from Sons Of Anarchy, etc), who presides over the Land of the Forgotten – both of whom have the power over life and death. There are a number of twists and tragic turns in the way that the romantic triangle unfolds, before it reaches a happy ending for all involved.

This central story is bookended by a rather cliched tale of a group of rowdy and bored schoolkids who arrive at a museum for an excursion. They are disinterested until a beautiful guide named Mary Beth (voiced by Christina Applegate) leads them through a secret passage into the bowels of the museum and to an exhibition of Mexican folklore based around the tradition of the Day of the Dead. Using dolls, she relates the story of Maria, Manolo and Joaquin to the kids.

The Book Of Life has been produced by Guillermo Del Toro, and has been shaped by many of his signature touches and his love of the fantasy and horror genre. This is something of a passion project for Jorge R Gutierrez, a former animator turned director, making his feature film debut here after years spent working in television on programs like Mad and El Tigre. The animation is visually quite distinctive and uses lots of gorgeous, vibrant colour and there is a lot of energy. The depiction of the fantastical underworld is quite detailed and elaborate.

The look of the characters is also quite distinctive, and they resemble beautifully textured wooden puppets with stiff hair and articulated limbs. But sometimes the visuals overwhelm the screen and distract from the story, and there are many tonal swings during the narrative that give the material an uneven feel, and many moments that fall flat. And the pacing is also a little languid and laboured at times, and the movie feels longer than its 95-minute running time.

The vocal cast features Danny Trejo, a regular in Robert Rodriguez’s films, Hector Elizondo, opera singer Placido Domingo and Ice Cube. The film also features some diverse musical choices for the soundtrack, including the likes of Radiohead and Mumford & Sons’ I Will Wait, which have been reinvented and reinterpreted with a distinctively Mexican flavour, and a couple of new songs written by composer Paul Williams (The Phantom Of The Paradise, etc).

★★☆

 

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