Hollywood’s animated sector has seen some outstanding works since its debut almost a century ago with most of them taking us to inconceivable environments such as enchanted forests, outer space, lands with dragons and so on. Albeit, a change of scene from the books of fairy tales to a Book of Life feels as refreshing as the Mexican touch that is engraved on this visually gorgeous film from newcomer director Jorge R. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro. What make this film stand out from others is that it doesn’t come in the form of a fairy tale. This “book” comes as an invitation to celebrate one of the most iconic holidays of Mexico: El Día de los Muertos.
The movie begins with a group of scholar kids having a tour in a museum whose tour guide is about to explain the origins of one of the most popular celebrations in Mexico as it is told in the Book of Life. It tells the tale of young Manolo (Diego Luna), a child who grows up passionate about music while trying to evade the traditional bullfighter profession of the family as he only cares about winning Maria’s heart (Zoe Saldana). The only problem is that his best friend, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a brave boy destined to be the hero of the little Mexican town, is also in love with her. Bored out of his reign in the Land of the Forgotten, Xibalba takes advantage of the love triangle and wagers with La Muerte, the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, over who will Maria marry. This bet unleashes a series of unexpected turn of events with fate as Manolo will have to travel across the three kingdoms if he ever wants to see Maria again.
Right from the beginning, the picture immediately catches the spectator’s eye, and not only because of the brilliant animation, but because of the original, colorful characters and landscapes that manage to accurately capture the essence and spirit of the festivity. This especially noticeable on two parts: the very first minutes in which the holiday is explained, with the many decorations surrounding the graves of the deceased families and when Manolo first enters the Land of the Remembered, where the colors of every single detail almost pop out of the screen. But first price goes to La Muerte (who is based on Mexico’s “La Catrina”) with its beautiful costume design and features. She, by herself, is enough to pay tribute to what El Día de los Muertos actually is about: characteristic colors, Cempaxúchitl flower and “Calaveritas” (little skulls). All of this definitely reflects the effort of newcomer but talented Jorge Gutierrez in showing his nation’s traditions.
“What is it with Mexicans and death?” asks a kid hearing the story, and he might be right, after all, how do you explain death to a child? Well, the love story that is told throughout the movie ends up being a very good and funny way to explain a new way to see death to children. It is not the conventional “best friends turn rivals” kind of story, as both Manolo and Joaquin, even if they want the girl more than anything else in the world, they respect each other, it’s like a friendly “may the best man win” kind of match. This is a good move, I mean, why would kids want to see a cartoonish soap opera? Nonetheless, at some parts of the movie the theme of El Día de los Muertos is somewhat forgotten because there are moments in which the film relies too much on the love triangle. But that doesn’t represent a real problem for the film to be a nice thing to watch. Even if death represents a difficult subject for children, the rest of the story makes it comfortable with plenty of funny moments, moral messages and popular pop songs.
The Book of Life arrives in perfect time to arouse the celebratory spirit of the Mexican holiday with an animation so rich in color and detail it becomes a real pleasure to the eye. Even if the story loses its Day of the Dead feeling at some points due to the love story of the characters, everything else reflects the full cultural pride the Mexican team has managed to engrave in the film (a remarkable achievement for rookie Jorge Gutierrez). Everything from the characters and environment’s design to some life and death lessons that kids may be able to understand without having to worry about it, the product of this “book” can’t go unnoticed by any fan of CGI animation and festivities.
Rating: 8 – Definitely worth it