MOVIE REVIEW: THE BOOK OF LIFE / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: JORGE R. GUTIERREZ / SCREENPLAY: JORGE R. GUTIERREZ, DOUGLAS LANGDALE / STARRING: DIEGO LUNA, ZOE SALDANA, CHANNING TATUM, RON PERLMAN, KATE DEL CASTILLO, ICE CUBE / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 24th
Looking to do for the Mexican Day of the Dead what THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS did for yule, THE BOOK OF LIFE chronicles the adventures of three childhood friends Manolo (Luna), Maria (Saldana) and Joaquin (Tatum) whose friendship is tested when their relationship becomes the subject of a bet between the rulers of the two lands of the dead; La Muerte (del Castillo), mistress of the colourful Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Perlman), the Lord of the dreary Land of the Forgotten.
Will Maria marry Xibalba's choice, adventurous Joaquin, who will grow to be a great hero, or La Muerte's choice the more soulful Manolo, destined to be bullfighter by his family despite his dreams of becoming a musician? Along the way the trio will need to deal with multiple familial obligations, temporary exile, banditos, cute pigs, magical artefacts, Xibalba's meddling and premature trips to both lands of the dead (and dead relatives) before the bet can be settled.
All of the above is presented in a charming art style with each of the characters modelled as wooden marionettes, with hinges and joints clearly visible on their arms and legs. This look is justified by the framing device of a museum tour guide (who may be more than she seems) relating the story to a group of modern day "detention kids" using wooden dolls. Other art styles pop up for the modern day sections along with a flat 2D style animation used for filling in background stories, with all three working well together. The larger world(s) are also presented beautifully with clever little details here and there, such as the town of San Angel being shaped like a guitar from above, its towers seemingly defying physics from a distance, a beautiful parade in the land of the remembered and the many odd supporting and background characters including a soapy chicken and some frankly bizarre-looking soldiers.
Accompanying the exaggerated visuals, THE BOOK OF LIFE packs in versions of well-known songs alongside original compositions, appropriately arranged to match the Mexican theme, most of which are very catchy but also quite short, each sticking around just long enough to lodge in the brain and get its point across before moving on. And the film does move on quickly, covering a lot of ground. It only ventures to the land of the dead after almost an hour, spending more time than expected chronicling the characters’ adventures in the living world. Happily, it's another film that doesn't feel the need to spell out its entire plot in the trailer.
All of the work on the visuals and music would be for naught if the film wasn't entertaining, thankfully THE BOOK OF LIFE is an enjoyable, funny romp, managing to entertain both children and adults and doing so without dumbing down the story. While one of the rivals for Maria's hand could have easily been portrayed as the villain of the piece instead he remains sympathetic throughout, and Maria herself is no damsel in distress and is well capable of handling the two men.
Despite dealing so prominently with death and the Land of the Dead the colourful film presents no cause for concern for children, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is probably scarier for the very young. The frequent comedy and the central message of celebrating the dead rather than mourning them, dissipates any real darkness.
According to the museum guide, THE BOOK OF LIFE contains many stories; this is just one of the most important. Hopefully more quirky tales will be forthcoming from this team in future.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10