Inspired by Mexican legend, The Book of Life is a computer-animated film that gives itself the freedom to make its own distinct visual style. Where other CG family films are content with plasticine cartoony versions or finely detailed approximations of our world, this energetic creation unfolds as a constant and consistent visual marvel all its own. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and his team of artists invent a world of the imagination, a 19th century Mexican village populated by archetypes and passions sitting atop a fantasy realm. The character designs look like carved wooden puppets, hinges for joints, clothes and facial features painted on. It’s a unique look, a blend of 2D and 3D that places computerized bounce and expressiveness over ancient techniques. This tension in the style helps animate a story explicitly about history, about remembering, about myth and fate.
The screenplay by Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale is a set of nested episodic stories. We start with a museum guide (Christina Applegate) leading a tour group of silly kids through a display of Mexican history, preparing to tell them an old story about a special Day of the Dead, the November holiday for remembering those who have passed on. And so back we go into a mythic, exaggerated past Mexico where, in a small village, two little boys are in love with the same girl. One of them might just marry her. The rulers of the underworld, a calavera-faced doll with a candle-topped sombrero for a queen (Kate del Castillo), the other a snaky, bearded, winged sorcerer king (Ron Perlman), make a bet on which boy will get that chance. The film then plays out on two planes of existence, a mortal realm where the trio grows into young adults turning friendship into potential romance, and a supernatural realm populated with spirits, ghosts, and magical beings.
Warm voice performances flesh out the central romantic triangle, with a conflicted bullfighter who’d rather be a singer (Diego Luna) and a town hero with a magic medal (Channing Tatum) vying for the attention of the kindhearted mayor’s daughter (Zoe Saldana). In a refreshing change of pace, the jealousies aren’t too fraught and the girl makes clear she’s not even sure if she needs a man in her life, and certainly not one who’d hold her back. Eventually, fate steps in and traps a character in the afterlife, forcing a scramble through phantasmagoric imagery alluring, morbid, and madcap to resolve plot threads in a way that can bring living and dead together to make things right. Imagery includes skeletons, deities, flames, buffets, floating walkways, waterfalls, flickering candles, a rolling labyrinth, and a sentient book, to name a few.
Told in typical family animation style, the movie has fast paced romance and daring do, zippy throwaway gags, musical numbers, and lessons about believing in yourself and loving your kith and kin. But under Gutierrez’s direction, the film is more eccentric than the usual CG family friendly fare. The musical numbers are a collection of sweet new ditties and preexisting tracks from a bizarrely diverse group including Biz Markie, Radiohead, Elvis, and Mumford & Sons. But it’s really the copious cultural specificity that sells it, from those songs played in a fun mariachi influenced style, to the thick accents, luchadores, bullfighting, and authentic Mexican touches in every corner of the design. It’s worth seeing just to marvel at the sights, appreciate the attention to detail, and to hear an endless parade of wonderful Spanish and Latin American voices (Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, and more).
But it’s not just a delight to see and hear. The story has genuine weight and wonder, ultimately moving in its portrayal of familial and cultural history and the restorative power they can bring. The love story is broadly appealing and sturdily constructed, and the trapped-in-the-underworld plotline has mythic resonance while being a great excuse for beautifully imagined fantasy. I was invested in these little CG wooden puppet people’s lives and wanted to see them work their way to a happy ending as brightly colored, briskly paced, and vividly fantasized as their trials and tribulations.
Best of all is the tenderness with which the subject of death is treated. It treads lightly and compassionately in creating a fantasy about life and death that respects old traditions and meets its target audience on their level. It’s an exuberant and gentle macabre tone that’s entertaining and weirdly comforting. Death is natural, it says, but the lessons and love left behind by the dead can provide you the strength and courage to keep on living. Their stories can help you write your own. That The Book of Life can do that and be fast, funny, and stylishly involving as well makes it feel all the more welcome.