Based on its trailers, The Book of Life begins in a way one might not expect. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and written by Gutierrez and Douglas Landale, the early minutes of the film contain none of the mexican folklore and vibrant, colorful imagery that is the cornerstone of the marketing campaign. In order to ease audiences into a culture that may not be the most recognizable to the average cinema-goer, Gutierrez and Landale opt to go for a framing device, wherein a handful of mischievous children receive a special, hidden tour on their museum field trip led by the cheery Mary Beth (Christina Applegate). Deep in the bowels of the museum is a shrine of sorts dedicated to the Mexican Day of the Dead. It is here that, with the help of some very expressive puppets and colorful wall murals, she narrates the story seen in the trailers. It concerns a love triangle between a soulful matador/musician named Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and a brash, cocky warrior named Joaquin (Channing Tatum), both of whom have fallen for Maria (Zoe Saldana). Little do they know that their courtship of the same woman has cosmic implications, as they have caught the eye of La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), each of whom takes an interest in one of the two suitors.
La Muerte is the ruler of the Land of Remembrance, the part of the afterlife full of happy souls essentially at an eternal party. Xibalba is tasked with overseeing the Land of the Forgotten, a much more drab and depressing place. Looking for a job upgrade, Xibalba proposes a wager, siding with Joaquin against La Muerta and Manolo, with the winner of Maria’s hand in marriage also winning the Land of Remembrance for the respective deity. Xibalba is not particularly interested in playing fair, though, and wastes no time trying to tip the scales in Joaquin’s favor by bestowing a medal upon him that makes him invulnerable and unkillable. The medal raises the ire of some local bandits, and suddenly their sleepy town finds itself besieged by the bandit horde.
The first and most noticeable aspect of The Book of Life is its production design, and Gutierrez and Reel FX Creative Studios have put together something special. Calling back to the framing device, the characters of the story are all mannequins, with boxy and segmented arms and legs and jerky movements. In practice, these character designs and animations are more akin to something like stop motion than its computer animated brethren, and immediately catches the eye with ease. The designs of the townspeople are many and varied, often with a heavily Picasso-influenced cubist look to their faces and noses. Xibalba, with his ethereal green skin, tiny skull pupils and shoulder-mounted candles flickering green flame, and La Muerta, with her giant, screen-sized sombrero and flowing red gown, are some of the best designs anyone can find in modern animation. The settings are bright and lush, especially once the story shifts to the Land of Remembrance and calavera art dominates the scene, and all taken together, The Book of Life is legitimately one of the best-looking animated films that has come around in an incredibly long time. It draws in the audience, both child and adult alike, and is a joy to watch.
It is unfortunate, then, that the story does not live up to its lofty animation. It is presented as a fairy tale told to children, so it makes some amount of sense that its narrative would be relatively simple, but even considering that, the script of The Book of Life is far too simplistic to adequately support its themes. The jokes come fast and loose, some funny and many not, but nothing is given adequate time to breathe. The pacing is all out of whack, never allowing the characters or the story to slow down and breathe. This is a movie that could have used an extra fifteen or so minutes to smooth out some of these rougher patches, but it likely wanted to avoid overstaying its welcome with the kiddies.
Additionally, the film makes an incredibly short-sighted decision to have Manolo and others sing mariachi adaptations of popular songs by such acts as Mumford and Sons and Biz Markie. There is nothing that breaks the spell of the film faster than Manolo standing in the middle of an empty bullfighting ring singing a flamenco cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It is not clear what the purpose of these covers is, but The Book of Life would have been so much better served with more original music instead of attempting to shortcut emotional resonance via pre-established songs, none of which work as intended. It feels cringeworthy and cheap and against the spirit of the culture behind the film.
It is truly a shame that The Book of Life cannot live up to the lofty ambitions of its visuals. It is not hyperbole to claim that this is one of the most beautiful and visually rich movies of the CG era, and it will always be worth a watch simply for just that, to watch it. The bad jokes and the poor pacing and the awful choice of music will do everything they can to distract from the visuals, and they are far more successful at doing so than they should be. This is a film that is better served when watched but not actively engaged, as the plot offers nothing of substance. Breathing deep and wading into the lush fantasy of the setting of The Book of Life is a rewarding experience, but only just. Time will tell on whether the visuals will last longer in the mind than the film’s flaws in the long run, but as for now, the flaws seem to be winning out in the short term.