“The Book of Life” is gorgeous Mexican folklore brought to glorious animated life.
Whenever Guillermo del Toro is involved in a film, you know that it will feature visuals that can’t be matched elsewhere. Pixar has dominated the animated feature category in recent years for good reason—their stories are almost always superior.
While their animation is also high quality, a Pixar film looks the same across movies, with large eyes, smooth skin, and just enough pseudo-realism in the background to captivate the eye. However, 20th Century Fox and Reel FX have created a fair challenger in the animated movie area with “Book of Life.”
What they have created is unlike anything made for American audiences before. Here is a film that is very much rooted in the macabre but is not in any way ghoulish or gray. There is no Tim Burton/“Nightmare Before Christmas” morbidity to be seen, no pale figures set against black skies or ashen tombstones. Death is shown as it is in Mexican folklore, with eye-popping colors and stylish characters. This descent into the underworld not a morose occasion, but a celebrated journey into a neon wonderland.
Not enough can be said about the look of this film. If only the story had risen to the same level, stooping to fewer pop culture gags and tired one-liners, it might have been something of an upset in a genre dominated by one company. But despite its shortcomings, the film has surely raised some eyebrows in the industry.
The story begins with a wager between supernatural beings. A good many epic myths have begun this way and for “The Book of Life”, it seems as good a place to start as any. In spite of any misgivings I may have surrounding clichéd storylines, I am aware that the audience must be considered. This is a film for children, one that will expose those born in traditionally American families to a culture that is wildly foreign and strange.
The film involves a Mexican tradition that celebrates The Day of the Dead. To some, the practice may seem to be unnatural death worship, but given how it is presented this couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is meant to honor the dead so that their memory is never lost.
In the film, there are two underworlds: The Land of the Remembered, which is ruled by the beautiful and powerful La Muerte and The Land of the Forgotten, which is ruled by the dark and foreboding Xibalba. The pair seems to be somehow romantically linked and share a playful, competitive relationship.
According to the film, when the living pass on, they will live for eternity in one of these lands. So long as they are remembered, they will remain in a land with endless feasting and happiness. Those that are forgotten are doomed to be forever scattered as ashes and reformed into listless nothing. La Muerte and Xibalba observe a group of children playing and see that two boys are in love with the same girl. The deities make a wager on which boy will marry the girl.
The narrative follows traditional star-crossed lover tropes, but manages to stay away from any sort of anger or resentment that might accompany it. The tale is more of a typical romance, something that might be found in chivalrous stories of knights and their exploits. But the story is not the star—it’s the animation that shines. It is simply exquisite, with characters modeled as beautifully detailed marionette dolls, and is a testament to how Mexican culture has crossed over into mainstream consciousness.
The cast is also superb, featuring voices by Diego Luna and Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate and Danny Trejo, and a special cameo appearance by Placido Domingo. The film is certainly Americanized, which is understandable given the nature of American marketing, but the film is distinctly rooted in the Mexican tradition and absolutely sparkles onscreen.
It’s important to note that “The Book of Life” is not based on anything, is not an adaptation of anything, and is not a sequel to anything. It is an original, self-contained story told in a unique and fun way. While it has made it into McDonald’s Happy Meal promotions, there is something to be said for a creative film that takes this kind of risk.
Success at the box office will likely mean sequels and spin offs, but for now, “The Book of Life” is worth seeing on its own merits.