DIR: Jorge Gutierrez • WRI: Jorge Gutierrez, Doug Langdale • PRO: Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Guillermo del Toro, Carina Schulze • ED: Ahren Shaw • MUS: Gustavo Santaolalla, Paul Williams • CAST: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate
An eye-popping digitally animated piñata inspired by Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, The Book of Life bears the unmistakable mark of producer Guillermo Del Toro in its combination of the supernatural and the sentimental. The story – a mishmash of Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, and about a dozen other sources – involves a love triangle between gentle Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), lovely Maria (Zoe Saldana) and vainglorious but good-natured Joachin (Channing Tatum). The trio become the subject of a wager between the supernatural figures Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), with the eventual result that Manolo must travel through multiple levels of the afterlife in order to prove his devotion to Maria. Also involved are a magical medal, marauding bandits, and some discomfiting business about bullfighting.
In fact, the plot is so busy that more than half the running time has elapsed before Manolo even gets to the afterlife. When he does so, the parallel Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten are visual marvels, the former bursting with vibrant colours, the latter near monochrome. Innumerable flower petals and flickering candles are captured with exquisite detail, the immersive environments enhanced by excellent 3D rendering. In fact, so spectacular are the supernatural planes that it’s a shame the film has to rush through them in double-quick time, only to return to the Land of the Living for the resolution of the rather rote central love story. The subplot, involving the villainous bandit Chakal, feels shoehorned in to provide a villain and an action climax, eating up time that would have been better spent luxuriating in the film’s richly imagined visuals.
The characters are rendered as minutely detailed wooden puppets, and are prettily designed, if occasionally blocky and inexpressive in motion. The central trio’s appeal is almost entirely visual, as bland voice work from most of the cast – particularly Saldana and Tatum – does little to bring them to life. In smaller roles, Perlman and Del Castillo chew the digitised scenery with relish, though Christina Applegate’s Nickelodeon-ready voice brings little mystique to the quasi-supernatural museum guide whose narration frames the action and is used to provide reassurance in potentially upsetting moments. While the visuals are pleasingly distinctive, the songs don’t do much with Mexico’s rich musical culture, with gimmicky mariachi renditions of played-out numbers by Radiohead and Mumford and Sons working against the folkloric quality for which the story is aiming.
Despite the Day of the Dead theme, and consequent frankness about death itself, The Book of Life is geared primarily to young children. Its riot of colour and activity is likely to go down a storm with that audience, although adults drawn in by Del Toro’s prominently billed involvement may be left hankering for a richer exploration of the material’s gothic potential. Nevertheless, the film represents a quantum leap from animation studio Reel FX’s last feature, the convoluted and unappealing Free Birds (2013).
Consistently delightful to look at, even when it flounders as storytelling, The Book of Life is certainly the most vivacious film about death since Beetlejuice (1986). With a little more of that film’s antic invention, and a little less focus-grouped proselytizing about the virtues of heroism, it might have been a classic.
G (See IFCO for details)
The Book of Life is released 24th October 2014