The Halloween season has already served up one macabre option for kids and animation fans in the creepy Olde English quirk-fest “The Boxtrolls.” Now there’s a second option on the table, this time with a flair of south-of-the-border bravado — a visually captivating trip to the underworld and back called “The Book of Life.”
"The Book of Life" is built around a simple love triangle, as two young Mexican men, friends since childhood, vie for the attention of a young woman named Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana). Manolo (Diego Luna) comes from a family of bullfighters, though his true passion is music. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) comes from a family of military greats, and tries to lure Maria with his machismo and wealth.
These kinds of things are complicated enough on their own, but other parties are hard at work pulling strings. Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is a ruler of one half of the underworld, dubbed the Land of the Forgotten, and he's determined to take over the other, much more desirable half (the Land of the Remembered), which is ruled by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo).
Xibalba makes a wager with La Muerte: if Manolo wins Maria’s hand, the status quo remains, but if Joaquin marries the damsel, Xibalba gets to take over the Land of the Remembered. The stage is set, but Xibalba proceeds to stack the deck in Joaquin’s favor, and Manolo is tricked into making a trip to the underworld while Joaquin is free to pursue Maria’s favor.
At its heart, "Book of Life" is a traditional love story, with a predictable outcome. To be honest, the love triangle in question doesn’t exactly have equal sides. The lesson, according to Hollywood? The sensitive guy with the guitar always wins, and if you think that’s a spoiler, you aren’t watching very many movies.
The filmmakers do try to update things a bit for 21st century audiences, but their determination to make Maria more of an independent spirit than a damsel in distress too often comes in the form of telling dialogue than in visual demonstration.
What really makes "Book of Life" fun is the creativity by which it explores its world and narrative. Manolo’s trip to the underworld is engaging and fun, especially when he meets all his bullfighting ancestors who met with myriad untimely demises.
Along the way, the story is dotted with flamenco interpretations of different pop songs, like "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and, most interestingly, Radiohead's "Creep."
The story is fun, and the music is interesting, but "Book of Life's" biggest draw by far is its fascinating visual style. The animation is fine (and yes, available in 3-D), but it's the design and look of the film that makes it so unique. "Book of Life" employs different looks and feels for its mortal world, as well as both halves of its underworld, and the results are transfixing. Often the entire screen is filled with motion and decoration, inspired heavily by Mexican imagery. But to its credit, it never distracts too much from the action on the screen.
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro, "The Book of Life" is a creative spectacle and an interesting take on a celebrated theme.
"The Book of Life" is rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.