The Book of Life

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"They crushed our dreams... hilarious!"

Though the new animated film The Book of Life bears the name of co-writer and director Jorge R. Gutierrez, one glance at the design of the film, as well as the mischievous streak running through it, and it's unmistakably a product of its producer, Guillermo del Toro. The second film from animation house Reel FX is a substantial step-up in quality from last year's Free Birds, and is one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made. Though it suffers from a number of issues, the things it gets right are nailed so expertly that it's easy to forgive the missteps. 

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Creating a mythology within the span of a single film is always difficult, so the filmmakers opted for a framing device that involves a group of rowdy school children visiting a museum, and getting a lesson in the Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead from an eager tour guide (Christina Applegate). The tour guide tells the children the tale of three children who grew up together, and a wager between La Muerta (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), two rulers of the underworld, that would shape the trio's destinies. As children and again as adults, sensitive Manolo (Diego Luna) and macho Joaquin (Channing Tatum) fight for the affections of Maria (ZoĆ« Saldana). The wager involves who will win her hand in marriage, and Xibalba tips the scales in his favor by gifting Joaquin with a special medal that will make him invincible. 

Manolo's destiny is to be a bullfighter, and while he is skilled, his reluctance to kill the bulls coupled with his passion for music make him a poor champion of the town. Joaquin on the other hand, is now a decorated soldier, whom the town relies on to beat back the advances of a wicked bandit named Chakal (Dan Navarro). Maria is torn between the two men, but devoted to her town, and reluctantly accepts Joaquin's proposal in a bid to save the town. Manolo doesn't fare as well, ending up on the losing end of a snake bite, and soon finds himself in the Land of the Remembered, once ruled by La Muerte, but now lorded over by Xibalba as a result of their wager. Manolo must now face his greatest fear to return to the land of the living and win back Maria's hand to set things right. 

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While the story is a fairly paint-by-numbers tale of staying true to yourself and persevering in the face of great odds, the flavor of Mexican history and folklore woven throughout make it truly stand out from the crowd. Small one-liners like "Why are Mexicans obsessed with death," perfectly illustrate that not all children's fables have to be sanitized and glossed over for children to enjoy them, making it a more well-rounded affair than one might suspect. In fact, the film shares a ton of DNA with Dreamworks' first Shrek film, from its fractured fairy tale sensibilities to its unusual choices in music used in the film. The film features such a wide array of pop tunes, it will make your head spin. Any film with a soundtrack diverse enough to include Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Biz Markie, Rod Stewart, Elvis, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes has to be admired. 

Where The Book of Life truly shines, however, is in the animation. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen. The animation is mind-blowing, and the use of 3D is among the best I've seen in a film. Everything from the dusty, small-town land of the living to the DayGlo Land of the Remembered and the barren and bleak Land of the Forgotten is impeccably rendered, and gives the film a look and feel unlike anything else you've ever seen. The film falls back too easily and too readily on cheap pop culture references, odd stunt casting, and anachronistic humor, giving one the sneaking suspicion that there was either too much meddling from the studio or too little faith in the audience by the filmmakers, but those quibbles melt away as you begin to lose yourself in the whole experience. 

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As mentioned above, the stunt casting is a bit distracting at times, particularly in two major roles. As Joaquin, Channing Tatum pulls off the equal parts macho and boneheaded tendencies of the character, but his voice is inescapably white bread. For a film full of wonderfully talented Latino voices, his almost becomes grating at times. It's better than him attempting an accent like he so memorably failed to do in the cold open of 22 Jump Street, but I can't help but wonder if there wasn't a more qualified voice actor of color out there somewhere. Ice Cube also stands out as an oddity, playing a character called The Candlemaker, who oversees all the activities in all the various worlds of the film, and doesn't come close to modulating his voice to appropriate any level of authority. He turns the character into a joke-spouting clown rather than a benevolent overlord, which is a tad troubling. 

These are minor issues, however, when one considers all the great voice talent found throughout the rest of the film. Luna, Saldana, Perlman, Trejo, Navarro, and pretty much everyone else nail their characters with such aplomb, it makes the film just that much better as a result. Kudos must also be given to Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla for his rousing score that combines the best of authentic Mexican music with the classic heroic score one would expect to find in a fairy tale for families. 

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The Book of Life is a somewhat uneven film that manages to overcome its faults and deliver a wholly enjoyable film for all ages. Some one hundred-plus years into filmmaking, and more than ten times that length into storytelling in general, it's nigh impossible to make a story so often told seem fresh, innovative, and new. The Book of Life does just that and more, giving it the comfortable feel of the familiar, mixed with just enough originality to seem radically contemporary. This is a film that will appeal to just about everyone that loves a good story told in a different way, and if you're not craving that by this point in the year, there's probably just no pleasing you.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]