“The Book of Life” takes viewers on a spiritual journey through three visually astounding worlds to spread a message of self-determination for young viewers.
The new animated film, written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez, is an interesting and original take on the Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead. Although it’s targeting a younger demographic, the movie’s spectacular visuals and refreshingly entertaining story will leave audiences of all ages surprisingly impressed.
The film centers around three friends: Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). Manolo and Joaquin have been competing since childhood to win the affections of the beautiful Maria, who is actually a well-written character in her own accord despite being the film’s main plot device. The spirits La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) make a wager on whether Manolo or Joaquin will win Maria’s heart.
Xibalba cheats the wager by giving Joaquin a magical medal, taken from the infamous bandit Chakal (Dan Navarro), which Joaquin uses throughout his life to achieve fantastic feats of heroism. Manolo, on the other hand, receives no assistance from La Muerte. Despite having a strong passion for music, Manolo is forced into becoming a matador by his father to honor family tradition.
“The Book of Life” is a unique step away from most 3-D animated films. It relies more on storytelling elements than slapstick humor aimed at children. It is also a celebration of Hispanic-American and Mexican heritage, which is rare in most modern Hollywood cinema.
Through his main characters, Gutierrez expresses a message of self-determination instead of tradition clear to younger audiences. Manolo and Joaquin both live in the shadows of their fathers and struggle with their own individuality, and Maria argues with her own father about who should decide her marriage.
Maria’s initial declaration of independence and continued self-determination throughout the movie is a pleasing departure away from the traditional “Disney princess” model of female protagonists in animated films. The part seems almost perfect for Saldana, who has a reputation for playing strong, independent roles.
The film is highly impressive visually. Its over-the-top use of color to blatantly set the tone for each scene is forgivable both because the film is intended for children and simply because every scene in this movie is still extremely beautiful.
The plot is filled with a surprising number of devices for a children’s film. It could even stand to be a little thinner, with an unnecessary cameo of Ice Cube as the Candle Maker. The film drags on occasionally and does not always have a clear intention.
Despite these setbacks, “The Book of Life” is a fun, visually astounding adventure for those viewers still filled with childlike wonder.