From writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez, creator of the animated show “El Tigre,” and produced by visionary director Guillermo del Toro,” “The Book of Life” should depict a striking, bold new world in film. Though the visuals are vibrant and the animation is gorgeously unique, the movie has a decorative shell around its miniscule internal treat; there’s little substance.
Narrated by Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) to young children in a museum, “The Book of Life” is a legend of a wager between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the rulers of the dead. As young children in Mexico, Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin are three amigos that are united by their friendship and their families’ expectations. After a reckless though well-intentioned accident, the children are split as they grow up but vow to reunite. As adults, Manolo (Diego Luna) wants to be a musician but comes from a bullfighter lineage that his father (Hector Elizondo) demands he continue, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is destined to defend the town against an evil bandit as his father did, and Maria (Zoe Saldana) must be respectful as her father is an honored general. Both men attempt to woo Maria and win her hand in marriage, and La Muerte and Xibalba support opposing sides in a battle for the kingdoms of the dead; La Muerte graces Manolo, but tricky Xibalba gifts a secret medal of indestructibility to Joaquin while sending a snake to poison Manolo. When Manolo passes into the Land of the Remembered, he must reach his full potential and impress his family in order to earn a place back in the Land of the Living to stop Maria’s wedding and protect his town from the nearing bandit Chakal.
The primary characters of Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin earn interest and heroism as each character is a legitimately great person, and secondary characters La Muerte and Xibalba have a fascinating rivalry, but none of the characters have much story besides Manolo, and his isn’t that astonishing. The story is spread too thin with too much time wasted on Manolo’s bullfighting and the bandit Chakal to create much heart or pizzazz. Channing Tatum sparkles with much humor as Joaquin, and Maria is an especially powerful female character, but neither receives enough attention.
For a film that celebrates the Day of the Dead, it is surprising that more time is not spent in the Land of the Remembered, especially with producer Guillermo del Toro’s strong emphasis on fabulous visuals. Mostly depicted as giant floats in a parade, the Land of the Remembered just isn’t spectacular. The Land of the Dead is much more interesting in “The Corpse Bride,” a similar kind of film, and the parade floats in “Rio” are more remarkable.
As tolerable as I may have found the film, however, my seven-year-old fell asleep at a midday screening despite the film being full of bandits, bullfighting, singing, and adorable pigs. The temporary luster of the animation is forgettable, but “The Book of Life” is a suitable film for the time of year and is not very frightening if not viewed in 3D, appropriate for young children.
Rating for “The Book of Life:” C+
For more information on this film or to view its trailer, click here.
“The Book of Life” is playing at numerous theatres in Columbus, including Arena Grand and Starplex at Westpointe Plaza. For showtimes, click here.