For each and every holiday, there is an accompanying film to celebrate it, or in some instances several – such is the case with Christmas. But until a few years back, the cinematic world had neglected to acknowledge “The Day of the Dead”, Mexico’s annual celebration of the deceased. The film being reviewed here is a very admirable attempt at doing just that.
On an otherwise boring field trip to the local museum, a group of school-children are learning the story of Manolo (voice of Emil-Bastien Bouffard) and Joaquin (Elias Garza), two boys competing for the affections of their friend Maria (Genesis Ochoa). Overlooking the children are two spiritual beings: La Muerte (Kate de Castillo), who rules over The Land of the Remembered, and her husband Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of The Land of the Forgotten.
It is whilst watching the love-struck boys court Maria that La Muerte and Xibalba decide to engage in a wager, with Xibalba betting that the fearless Joaquin will win Maria’s heart, and La Muerte believing the timid, musical Manolo will triumph. Mere moments after the wager has been agreed upon, a devious Xibalba presents Joaquin with his Medal of Everlasting Life, practically making him invincible.
As the two boys grow into men, it seems inevitable that Joaquin, who is now the Town Hero (and voiced by Channing Tatum) will marry a now-adult Maria (Zoe Saldana). But Manolo (Diego Luna, Rogue One) is not out of the race just yet – he is now an accomplished guitarist, and still has a chance of romancing Maria with his beautiful music. Unfortunately, that chance is dealt a significant blow after Manalo dies and is sent to the afterlife, with little hope of returning to the physical world.
Unlike many Western societies, which tend to regard the topic as taboo for young children, Mexican culture is very open about the concept of mortality. Such is the case The Book of Life, which not only regards death as a natural part of life, but as something which is to be celebrated rather than feared. These values are validated by the film’s imaginative depiction of the afterlife, which is colourful and surreal without coming across as creepy.
The creative art-style is another commendable aspect of The Book of Life. Its characters, for the most part, resemble wooden puppets, while the surroundings and building look to be made of paper. This is in no way a slur on The Book of Life – if anything, it provides the film with a character seldom seem in conventional animation, ensuring that it looks unlike anything else being made by Hollywood. What’s more, all of this has been achieved despite the film’s low budget.
It’s in the story department that The Book of Life falls short. While the plot carries a positive message – always be true to yourself, no matter what – it’s one which has been done many times before, and done better by other movies. Not helping matters is Manalo’s irksome father Carlos (Hector Elizondo) who is steadfast in his disgust for Manolo’s love of music. It’s cliched gestures like these that make so-called “family films” mean-spirited and frustrating to watch.
Despite the shortcomings in its writing, and its budget, The Book of Life remains captivating viewing. Thanks to an imaginative art-style and loving embrace of Mexican culture, it makes for an enjoyable alternative to the mainstream animated offerings, and a useful tool for those uncomfortable with the concept of death.