The vibrant animated feature “The Book of Life” is a cheeky celebration of Mexican folklore with a solid cast, an irreverent sensibility and gorgeous visuals.
The story is the standard hero’s journey: Young Manolo (Diego Luna) doesn’t fit into his town’s and family’s traditions. His father (Héctor Elizondo) wants him to continue the long line of distinguished bullfighters, but he would rather sing and play guitar. Their town is guitar-shaped, so guess what we’re meant to root for. His best friend, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), wants to be a great bandit-fighting hero like his own father. The two are in love with Maria (Zoe Saldana), who is heroic in her own right. The gods of the realms of the dead (Kate del Castillo as the benevolent La Muerte and Ron Perlman as the devilish Xibalba) make a wager on their love triangle, and Manolo must undergo a quest and transformation to save his love and his people. Straight-up Joseph Campbell stuff.
But “Book of Life” does not feel rote. It’s exciting, funny, and exuberant. The colors, the music, the vocal performances, and the wild visual imagination all feel as if those making it were having actual fun.
In his feature debut, writer-director Jorge R. Gutiérrez (who designed the ornate characters with his wife, animator-painter Sandra Equihua) takes a devil-may-care attitude with everything from his musical choices – largely mariachi-fied versions of pop songs such as Radiohead’s “Creep” – to sly in-jokes (viewers should note that Ice Cube voices the deity known as the Candle Maker).
Luna is likable as sensitive matador Manolo and Saldana brings her patented girl-power blend of tough and sweet to strong-willed Maria. Tatum all-but steals the show as the super-macho Joaquin. One can almost hear the mustache in his voice.
And what a bushy, manly mustache it is. In one of the film’s signature moments, reportedly improvised, Tatum’s Joaquin calls out his own name as he leaps into action.
Supporting performers, too, keep the film from lapsing into dry anthropology lesson. The flirtation between the opposing gods really plays, and in a tiny role as Manolo’s tiny grandmother, vocal stalwart Grey DeLisle kills.
The real stars, though, are the designers and animators. For a mystical skeleton, La Muerte is downright foxy with her anything-but-dead, come-hither eyes and enormous, scarlet sombrero. Xibalba alternates between goofy and scary with his dread angel wings, antlers, and ectoplasm. This world is populated by marionettes without strings. The stylized detail of their individual wood grains; the lively reflections in their moist, reactive eyes; the crazy flood of color – all in an off-kilter universe that merges earthly paradise with mystical underworlds – make for a unique visual feast.
“The Book of Life” is proof that knowing where you’re going is no impediment to enjoying the journey. There are no great surprises, no shocking reveals (except to the characters themselves). But there’s so much to appreciate along the way that it’s a real page-turner.
The Book of Life
Voice cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman and Héctor Elizondo
Writer-director: Jorge R. Guitérrez