“Always play from the heart”
I’ve held fascination for Día de Muertos ever since seventh grade Spanish class. There’s just something about its love for the dead and ability to turn something scary to so many into this beautiful cultural tradition that makes its juxtaposition of old bones and ornate artistry a uniquely special aesthetic. To say I was intrigued in Jorge R. Gutierrez‘s The Book of Life would therefore be an understatement. The colors, detail, subject matter, and music he infused seemed a perfect coalescence of style and substance able to breath new life into a cinematic animation field desperate for a makeover. For him to then get someone like Guillermo Del Toro to produce only proved its potential after stalling at Dreamworks in 2007. Eventually finding its way to Fox, it definitely makes good on its promise.
Gutierrez and cowriter Douglas Langdale harken back to classic family film The Princess Bride, borrowing its story structure to assist American audiences unversed in Day of the Dead lore. Being that we’re all a little bit rambunctious and some perhaps uninterested due to ignorance on the subject, providing a quartet of troubled students bused into the local history museum to facilitate our entrance into the tale is a perfectly hatched device. The goal is to grab your audience’s imagination straight away and the filmmakers know this. So along comes young Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) as our guide, leading us into a secret exhibit too exclusive for the general population to stumble upon themselves. Her expertise lends the Mexican holiday an air of mystery as a result and we become the select few entrusted to learn its secrets.
This means the children watching and listening within the film can come in and out to diffuse any emotionally heavy scenes along the way. One of our stand-ins can incredulously demand Mary Beth is telling the story wrong when a character dies and another can blurt out in awe the revelations going off like light bulbs in all our minds once a lesson meant to be learned is shared. The gimmick ensures we aren’t alone to decipher things ourselves while also creating a timelessness expressing how it must have been told to countless generations before us and will continue with generations to come. After all, the main plot concerns true love and the lengths we’ll go to find it. The difference this version has to those you’ve heard before is the foreign and exotic belief structure behind it.
It’s explained early on that below the Land of the Living lies the Land of Remembrance ruled with kindness by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo). Underneath it is the Land of the Forgotten led by the evil, conniving Xibalba (Ron Perlman). When we die we go to the former to live amongst the deceased relatives that perished before us because those remaining on our plane of existence keep us close to heart by honoring us every November 2nd. Only when there’s no longer anyone alive to remember does a soul find itself lost in Xibalba’s realm to wither and die once more into oblivion. It’s no wonder he’s become sick with boredom and filled by desperation to switch with La Muerte by any means possible. Because she won’t give up without a fight, a wager is set.
Peering down on three best friends—two boys and a girl—they decide to let love decide their kingdoms’ fates. La Muerte chooses the heartfelt guitarist of matador lineage Manolo (Diego Luna) and Xibalba the brash and confident Joaquin (Channing Tatum) as the person to eventually marry Maria (Zoë Saldana). Both men grow within the shadows of their fathers, reluctant to be themselves in lieu of who they’re told they must become. Joaquin revels in this opportunity—thanks to the devil on his shoulder supplying a necessary push to win—while Manolo unceasingly struggles. Maria’s return home as a headstrong, independent woman years later provides the mirror both must face to discover their true identities, but an enemy bearing down on their village and Xibalba impatiently awaiting his bet’s outcome set things into a tailspin instead.
What follows is a fantastical journey of self-discovery and selflessness that enters the two realms of afterlife depicted with glorious art direction that cuts no corners. The characters are all made of wood to begin with courtesy of Mary Beth’s museum tour consisting of tiny figurines to help illustrate the titular Book of Life‘s stories, so seeing them in ghost form with intricate carvings is a sight to remember. The detail to every hinged limb, the vibrant colors of the Land of Remembrance’s neon glow, and the Cubist-inspired design of periphery players like the mariachi trio and Maria’s father (Carlos Alazraqui) are impeccable. Reappropriating contemporary music like Radiohead‘s “Creep” and Mumford & Sons‘ “I Will Wait” a la Moulin Rouge! is comically jarring at first, but it doesn’t take long to accept it as one more sensory quirk.
The adventure continues through life and death with an increasing cast of characters and humorous asides such as squealing pigs and soap bubble hiccupping chickens sprinkling the scenes with a healthy dose of random. That sense of head-scratching insanity ratchets up tenfold during the climax to keep everyone laughing and distracted from the otherwise run-of-the-mill plot pitting Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria against the prospect of mortal sacrifice. If Gutierrez hinged everything on the trio’s collision course it probably would have come off as trite and heavy-handed. And while the stunning visuals and wall-to-wall jokes could have simply added excess to mask shortcomings, they actually enhance the whole instead. His is an original world based on a tradition with panache able to captivate the masses and through it he’s succeeded in giving the dead the life they deserve.
 BOOK OF LIFE, from producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez, is an animated feature film comedy with a unique visual style. THE BOOK OF LIFE © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Reel FX Productions II, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Manolo (DIEGO LUNA) serenades Maria (ZOË SALDANA), the woman with whom he´s long been in love. THE BOOK OF LIFE © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Reel FX Productions II, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez comes an animated comedy with a unique visual style. THE BOOK OF LIFE is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Reel FX Productions II, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.