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Film Review: The Book of Life

on October 17, 2014, 12:00am

My compliments to the art and design teams behind The Book of Life, a vivaciously rainbow-colored family film that’s proud of its Mexican heritage and chock-full of indigenous art design. Día de los Muertos is on full display, loaded with skulls, mariachis, and a festive, celebratory afterlife. Paul Sullivan’s art direction and his production design alongside Simon Valdimir Verela packs a colorful punch supported by dozens of obviously talented animators and designers.

It’s a visual parade with the movie’s meticulously decorated wooden doll characters, mustaches atop globes, sunset towns crusted in desert dust and clay, and an underworld that looks like Little Big Planet at night. The Book of Life is a Hispanic rococo feast and possibly even a positive cultural gateway for younger kids. It’s great to look at, less to listen to.

Therein lies the film’s greatest problem. This death-and-love cartoon fantasy is mired in exposition and narration, and its stock story about fate and such only goes so far. It all begins with a bunch of bad kids being taken to a major Metropolitan museum to be shown the titular object as wistfully, cutely explained Christina Applegate as a guide. She takes the kids to a gorgeous, secret room and explains the rules of the book, why Mexico is the heart of the world, how life can be learned through the love story of two dolls … never mind how this lavish, nation-specific exhibit would exist without anyone noticing.

Then we get to hear how Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and Le Muerte (Kate del Castillo), two death gods, made a wager about love. The dire duo chooses two young boys, Manolo and Joaquin (Diego Luna and Channing Tatum, respectively), to place their bets on. The two gods will test which one of the boys can first capture the heart of town beauty Maria (Zoe Saldana). There’s a magic badge, and 18 years of waiting, and look, it’s needlessly complicated, but The Book of Life is about true love and remembrance in its many forms.

Typical Guillermo Del Toro, always over-explaining stuff, more interested in his art direction. It���s not a mortal flaw. It’s just his way; remember all that talk of unity and drifting getting in the way of robot fighting in Pacific Rim? Del Toro produces, and former Mad TV animator Jorge R. Gutierrez helms, but the art team deserves the round of applause.

It’s a fiesta of sentiment and death, a first grade essay using every color of crayon to talk about the Mexican holiday. In that way, The Book of Life can be forgiven for its weathered love story tropes. (Besides, can’t anyone in a romance story give equal time to their passions and their family?) As for the spastic humor, it works two-thirds of the time; for example, there’s a killer running gag about Manolo’s dead bullfighting family members that’s hilarious. What’s even more fun is the music, not just with Gustavo Santolalla’s score, but Paul Williams’ Spanish guitar takes on Radiohead, Elvis Presley, Mumford and Sons, and other pop hits.

But what makes The Book of Life a spectacle over another animated standard is its sweeping art direction, which makes a strong case for 3D animation and offers a bold example of where animators can go. Needless to say, it’s a sight.

Trailer: