An eye-popping kaleidoscope of color and the specificity of creative visual flourishes make this week’s 3-D animated feature release , which is inspired by Mexican folklore, Mexican folk art and El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a qualified delight and a diverting time at the cinema for movie lovers of all ages.
Produced by Reel FX Creative Studios and distributed by 20th Century Fox, it stars the voices of Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum and Diego Luna, and features heavy hitters Ron Perlman and Placido Domingo among its co-starring roles. Look, too, for a tiny vocal cameo by producer Guillermo del Toro.
The story is about Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna), his best friends Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana), and a bet made between the spirits La Muerte (famed Mexican actress and activist Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) about which of the two boys will win Maria’s heart.
Manolo grows up to be torn between his love of music and his family’s expectation for him to become a bullfighter, while Joaquin attempts to fill the shoes of the many military heroes in his family. Complications around the competition between Muerte and Xibalba result in a cheat that sends Manolo to the afterlife and three fantastical worlds, including the Land of the Remembered. Through this journey, he must find a way to conquer his fears and embrace his own destiny to bring a happy ending to the story.
There are many lessons woven into the story that have a powerful message, as well as two very strong females who have unimpeachable character and represent wonderful role models. Both La Muerte and Maria are fiery, opinionated women who still have great appeal, poise and charm. The film also uses the death-rebirth myth and the hero’s journey through darkness, along with themes of forgiveness and courage both of an individual and collective nature, giving a depth and weight to the film that makes it more approachable to adult animation fans.
There’s something really beautiful about manifesting the dream of creating a feature animated film. That is what Jorge Gutierrez has done with . He is a multiple Annie and Emmy-winning animator who most recently had been working in TV on the series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. For Gutierrez, The Day of the Dead has great meaning. Growing up in Mexico, his family passed down many stories, and taught him to celebrate those who had left life with a special day set aside just for them.
He experienced loss, the death of a close friend, as a young man, and it happened around Halloween. To keep his friend a part of his life, he always chose to make The Day of the Dead special. He even married his muse and partner Sandra Equihua on Halloween so this departed buddy could feel present to them. It is belief in the importance of remembering and honoring those who have come before us that built in Gutierrez a passion for telling a tale based in El Dia de Los Muertos. He was aided in development by his wife Sandra, who worked as character designer for The Book of Life.
The origin of his idea and how the finished film came into being is almost reason enough for any nostalgia or romance-minded person to see it. Gratefully Gutierrez brings his personal aesthetic and experience in animation to the project, having been influenced by his appreciation for Disney concept artist Mary Blair, and his work with both experimental animator Jules Engel and animation legend Maurice Noble. He makes The Book of Life so visually compelling and inventive, it will elicit a fierce loyalty in some fans, but audiences may find several aspects of the film in need of forgiveness.
The inclusion of stereotyped secondary characters and the randomly needle-dropped pop music that permeates the proceedings are flaws that nearly derail an otherwise exquisite piece of animation. Several of the supporting cast members are left scraping their knuckles on the cliche-floor, in search of connection with the lowest common denominator. What a waste, given the invention of design seen in every corner of the screen. Gustavo Santaolalla wrote the original music, vastly underused in favor of cliched sing-alongs by the likes of Rod Stewart, Elvis and Radiohead.
What makes the film rise above those weaknesses is its ability to keep the audience’s attention and fascination through the movie’s last scene. As someone who, in addition to being a film critic, owns an art gallery that specializes in animation art, I live and breathe cartoons all day.
My rapt attention for the duration of an animated feature is hard won, and the visual inventiveness of Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life certainly deserved it. That inventiveness, along with numerous other positive qualities, means you may find it worthy of your attention as well, despite its flaws. This could be a new yearly go-to always played the day after Halloween, and who among us doesn’t want to extend that holiday?
3½ out of 5 stars