I won’t lie, I was not impressed with the trailers for the Guillermo Del Toro-produced animated film, Book of Life. Despite the creative and vibrant animation, the modern references and celebrity casting of Channing Tatum and Ice Cube seemed painfully forced and pandering to the lowest common denominator. I kept getting flashbacks to Shark Tale and the Ice Age sequels. I cannot recall the last time I was so undeniably mistaken about a film, because Book of Life was fantastic. As one could already tell from the trailers, the animation throughout the film is astonishingly inventive and beautiful. Reflecting the narrative framing of a story being told to children, the main characters are designed like ornate marionettes with outlandishly exaggerated features. The set’s are detailed, colorful and effortlessly craft the illusion of depth. Whether in design, color or motion not a single frame of this film is without bountiful energy and personality.
The voice cast, which also includes Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Christina Applegate, and Ron Pearlman all imbue their characters with charm and personality. The Characters are all likable and three dimensional (even the default “villain” of the film, the Ron Pearlman-voiced Mayan god Xibalba, isn’t portrayed as evil but rather desperate, bored and mischievous). Numerous cliched character and thematic tropes are proudly displayed and reinvigorated with gusto and charm: the sensitive romantic, the meat-headed warrior, the feisty princess ect. But they all have personalities and motivations that delve beyond their archetype thanks to clever writing and heartfelt vocal performances by their actors (even Channing Tatum, who continues to redeem himself for years of pretending to be a bad actor).
The story is simple but classic. Two gods/ lovers, La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and Xibalba make a wager regarding the outcome of a love triangle between three child friends: a musician from a family of bull fighters named Manolo, his friend Joaquín, the orphaned son of famed warrior, and the princess of their town, María (Zoe Saldana). Drenched in Central American mythology and folklore, the film tackles one particular theme with such maturity, tenderness and pointedness that is unfortunately lost in a lot of children’s films: death. That’s not to say people don’t die in other Children’s films, but here death and not treated as this world stopping catastrophe, nor is it glanced over or ignored. It is looked at for what it is, a part of life. That is why this film’s version of the underworld is called the land of the remembered: it is in remembrance that our loved ones stay with us, and I could not be happier to see a film targeted at children addressing such a powerful concept.
While not without ample dramatic weight and suspense, the film is first and foremost a comedy with a frenetic rhythm of clever jokes hitting the audience at a mile a minute. Ranging from slapstick to pop cultural reference, some jokes don’t work (mostly the ones from the trailer, at least for me) but even the ones that aren’t on point are still bearable because of how charming and sincere the film is. Due to the speed at which the jokes are displayed I foresee this being one of those films you need to see a few times to catch them, and you’ll not poorer for it. This is definitely a film I intend to watch again.