Life and death dazzle in fantasy fiesta ‘The Book of Life’

John Villarose VI
Staff Writer

From the time the first trailer premiered, it was clear that “The Book of Life” was going to do something new in animation, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint. The advertisements promised an enthralling family film based on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead which would explore the concepts of life, death and love, while presenting the unique culture surrounding Day of the Dead in an easy-to-grasp fashion. To an extent this was achieved as viewers were dropped into an extraordinary, though occasionally shallow, world.

“The Book of Life” tells the tale of a love triangle between three childhood friends, Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum), Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana) and Manolo (voice of Diego Luna).
“The Book of Life” tells the tale of a love triangle between three childhood friends, Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum), Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana) and Manolo (voice of Diego Luna).

“The Book of Life” focuses on three friends: Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana). These three, and the two boys’ mutual love for Maria, become the focus of a bet between Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the supernatural rulers of the two lands of the dead. Their story in turn is shown to be a retelling of Mexican folklore to modern-day children.

The modern backdrop of the story is interesting, because it reflects one of the main points of the film: to help the current younger generation to grasp this bit of culture. However. the execution of these segments is shoddy, with inconsistent characters and a shallow setup. A little nod to the modern day would be nice, but otherwise the backdrop was unnecessary.

Though the characters were occasionally oversimplified, they were certainly entertaining, and the voice acting was incredible. Too often animation studios fall under fire for casting racially inappropriate voice actors (typically white actors portraying characters of color). However, the almost entirely Latino cast was extraordinary. Luna and Saldana were particularly impressive in their starring roles, breathing a little extra life into their respective characters. Tatum and Perlman were the only non-Latino actors cast to play Latino parts, but the actors fit the personalities of the characters so well (with Perlman’s Xibalba being suave yet villainous and Tatum’s Joaquin being hilariously arrogant) that they didn’t feel out of place. Even the minor characters were well-cast, with Danny Trejo, Cheech Martin and Gabriel Iglesias making entertaining appearances.

However, there was one unfortunate standout: Ice Cube portrayed The Candlemaker, a magical being who, while sometimes funny, served as a ridiculous black stereotype who was jarringly out of place from the rest of the film.

Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) bet on who will win the heart of Maria.
Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) bet on who will win the heart of Maria.

The story, while often predictable, was entertaining. It served its purpose of taking viewers through the wondrous world which writer/director Jorge Gutierrez (“El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”) and producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) crafted. The animation style is gorgeous, with all the visuals displaying a hand-carved feel which has never really been done quite the same before. Gutierrez stays true to the Mexican origins of the story, with the visuals reflecting the surreal design and color of Day of the Dead artwork.

In fact, the story might have benefited from a longer exploration of the unique Land of the Remembered. Instead, certain parts of the story felt rushed, such as an ultimately unimpressive and irrelevant “Pass my impossible trials to proceed” scene. While family movies typically can’t go on too long, it seems as though the filmmakers just tried to cram a few too many ideas into the 95 minute runtime. What’s there is good, but it just feels like there should be more to flesh out the plot.

This film is not without its flaws. It disappointingly falls into a few easy-to-avoid mistakes, and while they take the viewer briefly out of the film, most (except, perhaps, Ice Cube’s Candlemaker) don’t greatly hurt the rest of the movie. The creativity in the film is obvious with main characters, especially Luna’s Manolo, often performing Latino twists on modern songs to further peak the interest of kids looking to understand the culture. It’s a fun and particularly humorous film that, while seemingly aimed toward children, is enjoyable for all ages.