Latinos have been underrepresented in animation for so long,
it’s too bad that The Book of Life,
one of the first American features to focus on Hispanic characters and imagery,
isn’t a better film. But it suffers from an underdeveloped, overly familiar
story and a visual style that’s so over-the-top, it overwhelms the audience’s
When a group of obnoxious school kids visit a museum, they’re
taken on a special tour by a magical, mysterious guide. She dazzles them with
exhibits of objects that evoke Pre-Columbian art, and recounts a story from “The
Book of Life”—a sort of film within a film.
In the imaginary town of San Angel, three children are growing
up: Manolo, Joaquin and Maria. Eventually, Maria will have to choose between them
for a husband. La Muerta (voice by Kate del Castillo), the kindly ruler of the
Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the insidious lord of the
Land of the Forgotten, wager their realms on the outcome. La Muerta says Maria
will marry Manolo; Xibalba bets on Joaquin.
The adult Manolo (Diego Luna) is forced by his family to become
a bullfighter, a calling they’ve followed for generations. He doesn’t mind the
dance with the bull, but objects to killing the animals. He wants to be a
musician. Bolder, boastful Joaquin (Channing Tatum) becomes a heroic soldier
who fights bandits, but he cheats by relying on a magic medallion of Xibalba’s that
When Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from being educated in
Europe, she’s more beautiful than ever—and just as spunky. Both her old friends
are smitten anew. Manolo courts her with love songs, including an incongruous
rendition of “Falling in Love with You.” Joaquin, who regards his victory as a
foregone conclusion, makes sexist comments borrowed from Gaston in “Beauty and
the Beast.” A sensitive, loving musician vs. a bragging, dishonest soldier: Who
will Maria choose?
Xibalba cheats on the bet, killing Manolo and sending him to
the Land of the Remembered, where several of his relatives join him on a quest
to right the wrongs he’s been done. They get help from an oddly powerful but
comic figure, the Candlemaker (Ice Cube). Manolo passes through a treacherous
maze borrowed from the “Indiana Jones” movies to be judged by an unnamed giant
who looks a bit like an Aztec idol. Eventually, he returns to life to expose
Xibalba, win Maria’s heart (again), help defeat the marauding bandits and
reconcile with Joachin.
For most of the film, the main characters look like puppets
with hinged joints, which may leave some viewers wondering why film wasn’t done
in stop-motion rather than CG. Director/co-writer Jorge Gutierrez modeled the
film’s imagery on Mexican Day of the Dead artwork, which is striking but too
busy to work well. The characters and their surrounding are covered with
brightly-colored skulls, flowers, hearts, etc. In the realms of the dead, the characters
look like clay sculptures with additional designs carved into their flesh.
Every frame of The
Book of Life, is so flamboyantly busy, it’s impossible for the viewer to
know where to focus, and the story sputters to its foregone conclusion.