Animated family movies have been trending a little weird in the past few years, and don’t think for a moment I consider that a bad thing. There are only so many talking puppies and dancing teddy bears you can take before pharmaceutical intervention is required.
As a parent of younger kids, I find the oddities that come along to be nothing short of a breath of fresh air. “The Book of Life” is a delightful and strange little piece of family entertainment that takes the form of a heroic fable built around Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
The framing device involves a group of delinquent kids on a field trip to a museum who are given a lesson in cultural diversity by their tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate).
Mary Beth shows the kids a huge diorama and tells them about a small village in Mexico where three young friends catch the eyes of the rulers of the underworld. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is the beautiful, kindhearted ruler of the Land of the Remembered, a joyous, eternal playground for the deceased who are honored and celebrated by their descendants on the Day of the Dead.
Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is the sneaky, underhanded ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, a place that is about as big a bummer as it sounds.
While chatting about the lives of the living, La Muerte and Xibalba decide to make a wager, the winner of which will become the undisputed ruler of the Land of the Remembered.
Spotting two boys Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) vying for the attention of the beautiful, headstrong Maria (Zoe Saldana), the two immortals pick which boy they think will ultimately win Maria’s hand in marriage.
La Muerte selects Manolo and Xibalba backs Joaquin, meanwhile, time passes and Maria is sent off to Europe to be raised in a convent.
Joaquin grows up to be a great hero who defends villages from roving bands of marauders. Manolo is from a long line of champion bullfighters, but he longs instead to be a musician. When Maria returns to the village, all grown-up events unfold that result in a hero’s quest throughout both the underworld and the land of the living as the three friends learn that if they are going to win the day, they have to be true to themselves.
“The Book of Life” was produced by acclaimed gothic storyteller Guillermo del Toro and this thing has his fingerprints all over it, even though most of the work was done by writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez.
The pair infuses the movie with a unique look and feel as all of the main characters in the story are creatively presented as articulated wooden puppets since they are all introduced as figurines from Mary Beth’s diorama.
There is a fun, bouncy spirit to this movie that defies the superficially morbid subject matter. There’s also some great music as several contemporary songs are given a mariachi twist.
What might be most refreshing about “Book of Life” is that it comes from a distinct cultural viewpoint without being pandering or whitewashing its ethnic origins. Just like its heroes, it is a movie that is true to itself; a trait that is as admirable as it is rare.
“The Book of Life” is rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements, and brief scary images.