Jorge Gutierrez's gorgeous 'The Book of Life' is one of the best animated films of the year
The Book of Life 20th Century Fox
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Screenplay: Jorge R. Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale
Starring: The voices of Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube and Danny Trejo
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
October 17, 2014
(out of four)
The Book of Life is one of those movies I would have enjoyed even if the sound in the theatre had been completely shut off. It is one of the most intricately conceived and gorgeously crafted animated films I've seen in quite some time, every frame a vibrant celebration of life. Even if, y'know, it's actually a celebration of the dead.
The film, inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead, creates three distinctly realized worlds, each as richly imagined as the next. There's the land of the living, in this case a small Mexican town called San Angel, rooted in time-honored traditions it's not quite ready to let go of. But more importantly, there are the dueling afterlives: the Land of the Remembered - ruled over by the sumptuous La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo*) - and the Land of the Forgotten, governed by Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman). The former is a carnivalesque fantasia, a neverending tapestry of color and spirit that calls to mind the beauty and intricacies of Mexican folk art, among a host of other influences. The latter location is, of course, bleaker and more sparsely colored, but no less visionary.
* I'm just going to assume Salma Hayek was unavailable for the part.
(Technically, there's a fourth world as well, as the film has a present-day frame story, with a history museum tour guide hosting a group of grade-school children and recounting one of the crucial pieces of folklore from the famed Book of Life.)
Once we get a look at the place, it's no wonder Xibalba is unhappy in the Land of the Forgotten. Which is why he proposes a bet to his longtime foe (and, incidentally, lover), La Muerte, with the winner being granted dominion over the Land of the Remembered. (One gets the sense that, like Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick, they make such bets quite often. It's a way to pass the time.) This sets the stage for a simple but deceptively familiar story of a love triangle caught between an eternal wager pitting dark against light.
La Muerte and her odious-yet-beloved Xibalba float around above the land of the living, observing but rarely (if ever) intervening in any direct way. (I'll let you guess which of the two ends up cheating.) Their bet this time around involves a young girl, Maria, and her two boyhood suitors, best friends Manolo and Joaquin.
Manolo is kinder and gentler - the romantic, the musician - while Joaquin is more overtly heroic, always eager to display acts of courage, bound to be a soldier. La Muerte, naturally, bets on the meek, soft-hearted Manolo, while Xibalba is quite certain Joaquin's derring-do will win Maria's heart. And so the wager is set.
But what seems like a conventional fairy-tale setup is mitigated by the intrusion of modernism. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale show a distinct commitment to those values, as they use the story to upend the traditions and mores in which the folklore is rooted. In fact, the entire movie has a modern slant, even down to the film's musical numbers, among them cover versions of famous songs by the likes of Radiohead, Rod Stewart and Mumford & Sons.
Perhaps the key component to the story's modernized slant is the agency of the woman in question, which is taken for granted by not only our otherworldly gamblers, but both men vying for her heart. And, of course, her own father. The film does a nice job drawing Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) as a strong character intent on making her own decisions. Yes, OK, we're still pretty sure she will choose either Manolo or Joaquin, but as far as the movie is concerned, no one will "win" her.
That attitude toward agency permeates the entire film. Manolo (Diego Luna) comes from a long line of bullfighters, and it is expected of him - rather, demanded - that he follow in line. Despite the fact that he'd much rather play the guitar and write love songs. Even when he does enter the ring and begin a career as a matador, he can't bring himself to kill the bull. Which, as far as his father (Hector Elizondo) is concerned, is a great shame to the family.
Maria's father, meanwhile, insists that she should marry Joaquin, who has grown into an invincible military hero who can almost singlehandedly protect the town from the evil bandit Chakal and his team of mercenaries, and can give Maria the high-class life of which she's worthy. A poor, wannabe musician could hardly offer the same.
Gutierrez, making his feature directing debut, sensitively explores the way legacies are passed on from parents to children - and in a broader sense, the way one generation passes on its values to the next - all while offering those traditions a sharp rebuke. At the same time, this is a joyful celebration of the traditions that inspired it, brought to life in astonishingly vivid detail. Consider the unique visual style of the characters themselves, reminiscent of finely carved wooden figurines, complete with visible joints. Or the ornate designs of so many backgrounds. Or the compositions and character designs that would make Dali and Picasso proud, respectively.
There's a conventionality to the storytelling, to be sure, and at a certain point it seems like the film is relying on action sequences as more of a crutch than anything else. But it's extremely easy to ignore those flaws when you have a film as visually spectacular as The Book of Life.