“The Day of the Dead” is such a fascinating holiday filled with so much interesting lore, that there’s a lot more material left for five more animated films of this ilk. Jorge Gutierrez has spent a long time trying to expose audiences to Latin and Hispanic heroes and complex characters, and with “The Book of Life” he succeeds yet again. “The Book of Life” is a wonderful animated romance in the vein of the classic Disney films, but it’s also a respectful tale set amidst the backdrop of the Day of the Dead. A group of rowdy grade schoolers are in for a unique field trip when they’re taken in to a museum by a mysterious tour guide who relays to them an epic story of love, life, and death. Set in the Mexican town of San Angel, we meet three childhood friends Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin, all of whom have spent enormous amounts of time together and are facing adulthood with pressures to grow up and realize their potential.
With friends Joaquin and Manolo always vying for the attention of Maria, the deities Xibalba and La Muerte make a bet. La Muerte is sure Manolo will win the love of Maria, while Xibalba bets the heroic Joaquin will be victor. Years later when Jaoquin returns as a man and a war hero, he and Manolo (a bullfighter who longs to be a singer) re-unite with Maria, who has spent many years seeing the world and garners a courage and boldness that they find most appealing. With Mexican bandits terrorizing San Angel, Maria begins to fall in love with Manolo, but her family is pressuring her to marry Joaquin for the sake and protection of San Angel. When Xibalba intervenes to win the bet, Manolo has to go through an epic journey to save Maria and San Angel. Gutierrez isn’t prone to delivering run of the mill animated fare to his fans, so “The Book of Life” garners some brilliant and unique animation with a style that’s unlike any other animated film around.
Gutierrez’s animated adventure is a vibrant, bright, funny, and wholesome movie with a lot of truly engaging characters he paints in complex shades. Though movie is told by a narrator, Gutierrez offers up a unique perspective by animating the characters to look like wooden dolls and marionettes. Everything from the wood grains and joints can be seen whenever they move around. And once we visit the afterlife, the animated character resembles wooden idols from the Day of the Dead, right down to the brilliant designs and white face. “The Book of Life” is a very enthusiastic and exciting tale filled with characters that are never black and white, but more shades of grey and often forced to make tough decisions. Even the villainous deity Xibalba is a being who is deceptive but for reasons that make sense to him in the long run. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro compile an amazing cast, all of whom provide truly memorable performances.
From Diego Luna, and Zoe Saldana, to Channing Tatum, and Ron Perlman, everyone seems to be having fun with their characters. Even Ice Cube who provides a walk on role is very funny and injects a sense of silliness that never bogs the movie down or distracts from the momentum of the narrative. I spent a lot of time listening for familiar voices, and Gutierrez enlists some prime Hispanic talent as well with Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Hector Elizondo, just to name a few. To add to the sheer excellence, “The Book of Life” enlists a ton of beautiful covers of classic love songs. “The Book of Life” is a fun, engrossing, and shockingly emotional animated adventure, and one that should be viewed by everyone, if only for its unconventional and original tale and reverence for Mexican folklore. It’s a shame we don’t have a lot more films like “The Book of Life” in theaters available to families.