With the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate. Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez. Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images. 95 minutes.
A group of kids arrive for a field trip at a museum and think it’s going to be another boring afternoon. Instead, they are taken by a clever guide to an exhibit on Mexico where they learn about the holiday know as the Day of the Dead. It’s a festive occasion where families remember their departed loved ones who are assumed to come back to visit for the day.
Thus begins THE BOOK OF LIFE, a creative and thoroughly entertaining animated film produced by (among others) Guillermo del Toro. The guide brings out wooden dolls to tell a story about a bet between La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who oversee different parts of the afterlife. The bet is over who will win the hand of Maria (Zoe Saldana).
On the one hand there is Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a dashing hero who has been given an enchanted medal by Xibalba which makes him invulnerable. On the other hand is Manolo (Diego Luna), who hails from a long line of bullfighters but would rather play his guitar. Both are brave and both are in love with Maria, and the story is about what the characters have to go through to sort things out.
From the animated wooden characters to the colorful depiction of Mexican mythology–new territory for Hollywood–the film is endlessly inventive. Manolo is forced into the family business of bullfighting but, like Maria, he has no desire to engage in killing, making him a disappointment to his father. Yet when Manolo enters the afterlife, he discovers that the family tradition isn’t quite what he has been told.
In spite of the themes of death and the stylized skeletal remains of Manolo’s family, the movie lives up to its title in affirming life. It’s about making the most of your life, but also not forgetting where you came from, with that remembrance of one’s ancestors being the way that assures them an afterlife in paradise. In some ways, the mix of the macabre and the joyous brings to mind “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” with its similarly creative animated look and offbeat storytelling.
This has turned into a very interesting year for Hollywood animation given that Disney/Pixar have had no major releases. From “The Lego Movie” to “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” there have been a number of movies that have clicked with audiences and gotten mostly glowing reviews. “The Book of Life” seems destined to join the list of best animated features of the year because it gets it right. It’s got an engaging and witty script and combines it with creative animation and a voice cast that includes Hector Elizondo, Placido Domingo, Danny Trejo, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Cheech Marin, and Miguel Sandoval.
This is one of those rare films that really is fun for the whole family. “The Book of Life” provides some welcome entertainment for the youngsters, but don’t be afraid of checking it out without one in tow.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.