The Book of Life — from producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge R. Gutierrez — offers proof that in the right hands nothing succeeds like excess. If ever a movie could be said to have too much of everything, this outburst of hallucinatory psychedelia is it. But there are times — at least in art — where too much is exactly what is called for. That’s the case with this visually heady blend of Mexican folk art, folklore, surrealism and a dash of cubism. This is a case where visual panache, a fresh cultural palette and refreshingly unusual mythology easily trump a fairly familiar story about two friends in love with the same girl and trying to live up to — or get out from under — family expectations.
Not to take anything away from director Gutierrez, but the stamp of Guillermo del Toro is all over The Book of Life. I don’t mean the del Toro of Pacific Rim (2013), but the del Toro of Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The Book of Life has the same kind of magical worlds that we encounter in those films — worlds that are at once beautiful and grotesque, and sometimes even a little terrifying. Oh, they’re toned down here so as not to be too frightening for younger viewers, but the magic is still there.
The story centers on Manolo (Diego Luna in what may well be his best role — animated though it is — since 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), both of whom have been in love with Maria (Zoe Saldana) since childhood. (It’s clear from the outset that Maria favors Manolo.) They both also labor under the specters of illustrious ancestors. Manolo comes from a long line of famous bullfighters, but he really wants to be a musician — and he refuses to kill a bull in the ring, which is a pretty big career hurdle. Naturally, his family is happy about neither. Joaquin, on the other hand, lives in the shadow of his late father, a military hero. What none of them know is that they’re part of a bet between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) — keeper of the lively underworld of the remembered dead — and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) — keeper of the gloomy underworld of the forgotten dead. Xibalba wants nothing more than to trade places with La Muerte and so bets that his pick, Joaquin, will beat out her pick, Manolo, for the hand of Maria. (It should go without saying that Xibalba is not above cheating to win.)
In addition to all the human and supernatural duplicity at work, there’s a very real threat to the village in the form of a marauding horror who not only wants to destroy the village, but desires to reclaim something Joaquin has. And there’s also a kind of God figure, the Candlemaker (Ice Cube), who — among other things — tends to the flames of lives. Some of this is neither new, nor specific to the film’s mythology. The Candlemaker’s flames owe something to Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921), while the whole idea of the dead only continuing to exist as long as they’re remembered can be found in many cultures and is specifically addressed in Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 work The Blue Bird. But let’s be honest, myths drift into each other throughout history.
What pushes The Book of Life into near greatness is the nonstop flow of ideas and imagery. Saying that it draws heavily on the Day of the Dead is both abundantly obvious and more confining than the film itself. While its computer animation lacks the handcrafted feel of the recent The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life is imbued with more warmth and overall charm. Yes, you can complain that the film’s framing story is largely unnecessary, but it does set up a pleasurable final note that makes up for it. The question, of course, becomes whether or not it will stand the test of time, but we can only guess the answer to that. I’m inclined to say that it at least deserves the chance. Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.