There just aren’t enough kids’ movies about death. We expect youngsters to understand concepts of heteronormative courtship and romance from their earliest exposure to fairy tales and Disney movies, yet the one inevitable thing they’re going to face in life is too often hidden away as a taboo subject.
Along comes “The Book of Life,” a colorful and vibrant animated story based around the Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, that magical occasion when the spirits of the departed return to earth to receive the gifts and remembrances of the living. Under the guidance of producer Guillermo del Toro, the movie champions honoring the memories of those we have lost while also advocating that the living must craft their lives to follow their own design and not the desire of others.
The story begins with a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) telling a group of rowdy schoolchildren the story of the Day of the Dead, and how the Candlemaker (Ice Cube) keeps track of the living, while the beautiful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, “Under the Same Moon”) and her trickster husband Xibalba (Ron Perlman) rule over the realms of the dead.
Wanting to leave the miserable Land of the Forgotten, Xibalba makes a wager with La Muerte, hoping to swap for her throne in the Land of the Remembered. They observe three childhood friends — the wise and mischievous Maria, the musically-inclined Manolo, and little tough guy Joaquin — and bet on which of the boys will grow up to marry Maria. La Muerte chooses the kind-hearted Manolo; to help Joaquin win, Xibalba gives the boy a medal that grants whoever wears it strength and courage (and, unbeknownst to Joaquin, eternal life).
Maria is sent away from Mexico (“the center of the universe,” the film tells us) to study, and when she returns as an adult (Zoe Saldana), she picks up where she left off with her childhood sweethearts. Manolo (Diego Luna) plays the guitar on the sly, but his father Carlos (Hector Elizondo) has pushed him into the family business of bullfighting, while the bravery and heroics of Joaquin (Channing Tatum) have made him a legendary soldier.
While Maria’s father pressures her to marry Joaquin so he will protect their small town from the evil Chacal (who killed Joaquin’s military-officer father), she finds herself more drawn to Manolo. To keep from losing the bet, Xibalba plays a trick on Manolo that will send him to the underworld and back in order to win the hand of his beloved, with the help of a dozen or so dead ancestors.
“The Book of Life” serves up a visual feast in every frame — since the museum guide is telling the story with wooden figurines, all the characters have articulated joints, shoulders, and fingers that make them resemble marionettes, yet they’ve all got expressive eyes and faces, even when they are rendered as skeletons in the afterlife. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez (a veteran of TV shows like “Mad” and “El Tigre”) creates one memorable world after another, from the kids in the museum (standing in front of a glorious Latin American diorama) to the small town where the action unfolds to the weird and wonderful explosions of color in the Land of the Remembered.
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The script (by Gutierrez and Douglas Landale) touches on poignant moments where lost loved ones are remembered, but those sad scenes are leavened with lots of comedy. (Vain soldier Joaquin, for instance, bounds off to battle yelling, “¡Joaquiiiiiiiin!”)
I wish the songs by Gustavo Santaolalla (whose score is just right) were more memorable, and that the film didn’t lead up to the requisite third act Big Fight that so many cartoons obligatorily provide, but “The Book of Life” manages to be genuinely surprising and engrossing. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” may have October 31 and December 25 on lockdown, but now November 2 gets its own cartoon that both kids and parents will want to revisit every year.