Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna) has loved the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana) since they were children. When she is sent to Spain for schooling, he dedicates himself to the family business – bullfighting. Maria returns to Mexico on the day Manolo enters the bull ring for his debut. The gods of the World of the Remembered, La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), and the World of the Forgotten, Xibalba (Ron Perlman) take notice of the romance and make a bet that will effect the young people’s world in “The Book of Life.”
Animator, writer and, now, director Jorge R. Gutierrez brings us a brilliantly conceived and executed musical animation that defies being pigeon-holed. The story brings us to the Day of the Dead in Mexico – not exactly a subject one would think of as the subject for a family movie. But, the filmmakers succeed in creating just that – a movie that will thoroughly entertain the whole family, except maybe the younger kids who may be frightened by the sometimes scary characters and situations.
The animation work is spectacular in its uniquely conceptualized world of bright colors supernatural settings. The story, by the director and Douglas Langdale, is unlike anything else coming down the pike and rivets the viewers’ attention right from the start. “The Book of Life,” though, is the kind of movie that should be seen to be to be appreciated, not just talked about. So, my advice is to do just that – see the movie. I give it an A-.
As children, Manolo (voice of Diego Luna, "Open Range," "Elysium") of the bullfighting Sanchez family and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum), the orphaned son of a legendary bandit fighter, are best friends who both hold a torch for Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana), the daughter of San Angel's General Posada (voice of Carlos Alazraqui, "Happy Feet's" Nestor). When the General sends her to Spain to tame her rebelliousness, Manolo, who'd rather sing than be in the bullring, tussles with dad Carlos (voice of Hector Elizondo), while Joaquin becomes the local hero who sets hearts aflutter. But their destinies are messed with by demi-gods La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo, Showtime's 'Weeds,' "No Good Deed"), Queen of the Remembered underworld and her estranged mate Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman), Lord of the Forgotten, who make a bet as to who'll win Maria's hand upon her return in "The Book of Life."
Cowriter (with Douglas Langdale)/director Jorge R. Gutierrez mashes up his Mexican heritage with themes of demi-god mythology, Romeo & Juliet, Westerns and the classic love triangle for an adventure that travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. If only the story, which includes an awkwardly defined character called Candle Maker voiced by Ice Cube(?!), were up to its visuals. The film begins as a bunch of bratty kids are side-tracked on their way into a museum by tour guide Mary Beth (voice of Christina Applegate), who takes them through a special, hidden entrance that explodes into a colorful exhibit of Mexican lore with hand-crafted, wooden, moveable figures. Gutierrez and his production designers spring into the world of these wooden dolls to tell their story and it's an inspired idea, a world where a rose is clearly a wood shaving, Granny Sanchez's chin hairs are toothpicks and chickens are straight off of one of those wooden pecking toys.
As we've seen in countless films where Greek/Roman gods mess with humanity, the gods here use humans as pawns in their own battle. La Muerte, who loves humankind, wagers on Manolo while her former lover Xibalba, who sees the worst in men, picks Joaquin. Right away, it's easy to spot the winner, but a twist's thrown in when Xibalba, who's hoping to win La Muerte's kingdom, cheats. He gifts Joaquin with a medal that ensures he'll never be killed. As Joaquin becomes a big hero, Manolo, who refuses to kill the bull he outsmarts in the ring, becomes an outcast. But Manolo's action pleases Maria. When his romanticism seems to be winning her over, Xibalba pulls an even dirtier trick.
The delights in "The Book of Life" are mostly in the details, like San Angel's Mexican wrestling masked priest backed by his chorus of singing nuns and Maria's pet Chuy the pig. San Angel is alive with character and color. La Muerte's world may find wooden heads and limbs replaced with skulls and bones, but it's an even more fantastical place where every day is like a carnival. Xibalba's kingdom is dark and dreary (and the film's ideology that this is where we go when our life on earth's been forgotten a depressing one). Music is as odd as that Candle Maker, ranging from covers of Radiohead's 'Creep' to Rod Stewart and Elvis, the film's original songs forgettable.
"The Book of Life" bursts with color and memorable characters that should amuse kids, but it's a bit over stuffed and adult pleasures will be limited to its witty eye candy.
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