The Book of Life

Posted by Joel Copling on October 18, 2014

Amidst the parade of oddities and quirks within "The Book of Life" is a surprisingly engaging study of the different stages of living and dying and the proper way to treat a lady. That latter element might sound precious, but it comes with the refreshing honesty of the lady in question, a strong female character in a culture whose view of such is still oddly regressive. The former element comes at the expense of a chaotic final act that settles into something more familiar, but it's still incredibly thoughtful and surprisingly dark. Kids will eat it up (which the movie represents in literal terms with its story-time bookend elements), and parents will find some incredible value in its central message.

The wonderful world of Mexico is currently celebrating the Day of the Dead, so a tour guide (voice of Christina Applegate) leads a group of schoolchildren through an exhibit showcasing the Book of Life. She has a tale to tell, and soon the kids are glued to her words: Once upon a time, there were two deities, La Muerte and Xibalba (voices of Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman), who have ruled respectively over the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten centuries after falling out of love. They wager and bet, and the lives of those who reside with the living hang in the balance of their actions. Perlman and del Castillo's voice work is as complex as their character design (Xibalba in particular is an unnerving, physical presence).

The lives in question are those of a trio of friends. Manolo (voice of Diego Luna) and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum) are friendly rivals who have longed for the affections of the forward-thinking Maria (Zoe Saldana) since childhood. She left as a kid, sent away to Europe by her father (voice of Carlos Alazraqui) to learn modesty, and now she's returned, eying both of them to see if each man has kept his innocent promise to her. It's not quite that simple for Manolo, who promised to become a musician in her name and has been forced into the family business of bullfighting, but Joaquin, who promised to fight for Maria, has become an irrepressible ladies' man and warrior.

The final act becomes far too crowded for all of these emotional threads to be done full justice, with Xibalba's tinkering of the characters' destinies and metamorphosis into a much simpler villain type than he has been established to be. It is imaginative, though, with Manolo traversing the Lands of the Remembered and Forgotten (The former is a garish explosion of color, while the latter is attractively not). And what is established before this is special enough that the simplicity of the final act and its series of external conflicts is more of a temporary setback than a sizable issue. "The Book of Life" has something to say about mortality, and bless the children and their parents who perk up and listen.

Film Information

Featuring the voices of Diego Luna (Manolo), Zoe Saldana (Maria), Channing Tatum (Joaquin), Kate del Castillo (La Muerte), Ron Perlman (Xibalba), Hector Elizondo (Carlos Sanchez), Christina Applegate (Mary Beth), Ice Cube (Candle Maker), Danny Trejo (Luis), Carlos Alazraqui (General Posada/Dali/Chuy), and Ana de la Reguera (Carmen).

Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and written by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale.

Rated PG (mild action, rude humor, thematic elements, brief scary images).

95 minutes.

Released on October 17, 2014.