While it would be easy to call The Book of Life a clear case of style over substance, somehow, in this instance, the label is applicable. And accurate. And not really a criticism. While there is a simple story at the heart of this animated treat, there’s also an astounding amount of visual aplomb on display. If eye candy was actually fattening, every viewer watching this enticing entertainment would instantly gain 20 pounds. Willy Wonka couldn’t invent a treat this sweet. Obviously geared toward the growing Hispanic demographic and respectful of same, it would easily be considered a classic of the genre if it wasn’t for the standard narrative conceits.
The film opens with a museum tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) explaining the Mexican festival known as Dia de los Muertos, or the annual “Day of the Dead” celebration, to a bunch of school kids. She even sets up the ruler of the living, the Candlemaker (Ice Cube), and the duo in charge of the various aspects of the Underworld, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and her husband Xibalba (Ron Perlman). After witnessing the closeness of three childhood friends — Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and their mutual love interest Maria (Zoe Saldana) — the evil spirits make a wager to see whom she will end up with.
Family and other interferences aside, Xibalba cheats, giving one of the boys a medal which grants him courage and strength (and unbeknownst to him, eternal life). Even after they have all grown up, the gods continue to meddle in their lives. Fearing he will lose the bet once and for all, Xibalba tricks Manolo, sending him into the realm of the dead. He must make his way through a trio of different “worlds,” each one offering its own lessons about life, love, and friendship.
When critics complain about animated offerings, there are usually two given aesthetic slams among the various grievances — lax narrative and underwhelming realization. Pixar’s name then comes up, especially when it comes to areas of storytelling and/or visual invention. They are the acknowledged masters. All others bow to their box office domination. Luckily, The Book of Life has imagination in sunny, splashy spades. Director Jorge Gutierrez, under the benevolent guidance of producer Guillermo Del Toro, makes sure that every frame here is crammed with detail, that every instance where an added element can emphasize a point or spark some subtext is taken advantage of.
This is especially true of the film’s last act, when Manolo must maneuver through the Land of the Remembered (with its collection of “late” ancestors) and the Cave of Souls. Gutierrez obsesses over these sequences, creating memorable moments via texture, design, and most importantly, execution. Sure, the film slips into many of the maddening misfires that undermine contemporary cartoons (barely passable pop culture references, less than memorable music and songs), but we actually don’t care. The optical wonder on display causes our gray matter to sputter and scramble, leaving behind a satisfied feeling that can only come from art expertly executed.
Another minor weakness is the voice acting. While few come to a kids’ movie to hear expertly delivered dialogue and true emotional investment, all here are just serviceable. Even Perlman and Cube, who offer a nice bit of eccentricity, don’t do much more than play towards type. On the plus side, the supporting cast is filled out with several solid Hispanic names, including opera great Placido Domingo, Hector Elizondo, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, and Danny Trejo.
There are rare instances in film where flash can outlast familiarity. The Book of Life manages that feat, coming dangerously close to being a classic in the process.