Visually arresting but dramatically rote, The Book of Life at least introduces American kids to the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos and should score points with families looking for kid-friendly movies that reflect aspects of their Mexican cultural heritage.
The Book of Life director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez makes the leap from his work in television animation (most notably as one of the creators of Nickelodeon’s El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) to the big screen, with the esteemed Guillermo del Toro on board as producer. Although the film is not as macabre as some of del Toro’s outpourings, the film dances with morbidity in a way that’s more forthright than other animated kids’ films. “What is it with Mexicans and death?” one kid asks in the wraparound story during which bratty American kids visit a museum where the custom of the Day of the Dead is explained to them by their tour guide, who also relates the story that unfolds onscreen. The story is a fairly conventional romantic drama in which two young men – musician and reluctant bullfighter Manolo (Luna) and decorated soldier Joaquin (Tatum) – battle each other for the hand of lovely Maria (Saldana). Manolo is tricked into pursuing Maria to the underworld, where he visits the Land of the Forgotten and the Land of the Remembered. Eventually everything is resolved in the Land of the Living.
The computer animation by Dallas’ Reel FX Creative Studios is spectacular, full of vibrant color and activity in every frame. The characters all have the unusual look of wooden marionettes with articulated joints, which gives the film a distinctive appearance. Latin slants on a few pop tunes prompt audience delight. Still, at 95 minutes, the film feels overstuffed with unnecessary stabs at humor (Ice Cube as the Candlemaker is a prime example). But the attempt to infuse kids’ imaginations with folk tales from outside the bounds of Western culture takes a step in a good direction with The Book of Life.
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