Producer Guillermo del Toro’s name is all over The Book of Life, even though it was conceived, co-written, and directed by animator Jorge Gutierrez. It’s an understandable association, though. The film is just macabre enough to feel of a piece with del Toro’s other films, which often fuse a child’s-eye view of the world with the grim and the uncanny. Gutierrez’s animated film is a family-friendly story that celebrates Mexico and Mexican culture, in particular, el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), the holiday reserved for communing with one’s ancestors who have passed from this world. It’s a potentially grisly setup, but the actual movie makes death look downright fun.
Before settling on a fairly conventional love triangle, the film gives some context to the Day of the Dead. Beyond our own world, there is the Land of the Remembered, where our beloved forebears go when they die, and where they live in festive, communal immortality, presided over by La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo). Beyond (or beneath) that, however, lies the Land of the Forgotten, a joyless place where a whisper can turn you into dust; this is where you go if nobody in the Land of the Living remembers you, and it’s all presided over by the creepy Xibalba (Ron Perlman), a green, glowing, grinning beast covered in candles and chains. (There’s also a godlike entity called the Candlestick Maker, voiced by a rather unexpectedly joyful Ice Cube.) Less a devil and more a lovesick trickster, Xibalba makes a bet with his beloved Muerte. They find three best friends — two young boys and a girl — and each stakes their kingdom on which boy will marry the girl. Winner gets to rule the Land of the Remembered.
The film then follows the three kids as they grow up in the touristically quaint town of San Angel, which is right in the middle of Mexico (which itself is, of course, “the center of the universe,” as the film reminds us). Manolo (voiced as an adult by Diego Luna) comes from a legendary bullfighting family and is himself a talented matador, save for the fact that he hates the idea of killing bulls; he wants to play the guitar instead. Joaquin (voiced by a very game Channing Tatum) is the son of a late military hero and has been pegged for glory as the one to save San Angel from the fierce bandit Chacal. Their object of desire, Maria (Zoe Saldana), the Mayor’s daughter, is a firecracker of a beauty, well educated and independent; she’s the one who teaches Manolo the wrongness of mistreating animals when she frees some adorable pigs early on in the film, wreaking havoc in her father’s town.
The playful rivalry of Manolo and Joaquin for Maria is egged on by Xibalba and La Muerte in somewhat schematic though visually inventive ways. I’m sure I’m not revealing any big surprises when I say that a journey through the Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten is in the cards for some of our heroes. If the human characters are designed to look like carved wooden puppets, the dead simply look like carved wooden skeletons, just a degree more ornate and unreal. And the Land of the Remembered feels at times like a roller-coaster ride crossed with a carnival, a landscape cluttered with luminous pyramids and castles and plazas and skull-shaped hot-air balloons as far as the eye can see, in keeping with the film’s festive take on the afterlife. There’s no color scheme, there’s just color, everywhere — which makes sense, because we miss it all when we enter the Realm of the Forgotten.
Such a crowded, colorful, more-is-not-nearly-enough aesthetic could easily have felt garish and confusing. But for some reason, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just the fact that, as the story becomes more and more predictable, the imagery gets more delirious. And that eye-popping sense of wonder actually helps mitigate the film’s more conventional elements. The too-cute-by-half contemporary pop songs played by street musicians, for example, feel somehow more surreal when done against such a crazed colorful backdrop; and the hero’s predictable journey through a visually florid underworld becomes something we anticipate, rather than just jadedly accept. The Book of Life may be all surface … but wow, what a surface.