The Book of Life
Guillermo del Toro presents an out-of-the-ordinary animated film inspired by Mexico's Day of the Dead.
Like Christmas, Easter brings a wealth of family film fare to cinemas — but not all flicks seemingly targeted at kids are created equal. Not all movies find their story in Mexican and Latin American culture in general, and in Día de los Muertos (or the Day of the Dead) specifically, for example. And not all all-ages efforts are produced by Pan's Labyrinth and Pacific Rim's Guillermo del Toro.
If you haven't already guessed, The Book of Life isn't much like other offerings aimed at viewers young and old, and the reasons keep on coming. Though it tells a tale of adventure and romance, it also plunges into worlds laced with death and filled with souls lurking beyond the grave. It may stick with the usual trick of using celebrity voices, but they're not your standard selections, nor do their vocals overwhelm the visuals. And it certainly doesn't look like anything else you've seen before, with its distinctively animated frames depicting the bulk of the characters as intricately crafted marionettes.
Instead, The Book of Life is an entertaining feast for the eyes and for the heart, both beautiful to watch and to become immersed in. It starts with school students bored with a museum tour, then sparked into intrigue by a savvy guide (Christina Applegate). The story she shares centres on two warring spirits — La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten — who make a bet over the control of their realms.
Three friends draw their attention: the feisty Maria (Zoe Saldana), who refuses to conform to customary female roles just because it is the done thing; the guitar-playing Manolo (Diego Luna), who is expected to follow in his father's bullfighting footsteps; and the headstrong Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the son of their town's famed but fallen protector. La Muerte wagers that the sensitive Manolo will win Maria's love, while Xibalba backs the bandit-fighting Joaquin.
Now, don't go dismissing the film for its formulaic focus on men tussling over a woman, because that's only the broad outline of the narrative. No one in the feature adheres to type, just like the movie itself. Everyone has to open their minds to finding their right path. Everyone has stereotypes to overcome.
Indeed, experienced animator turned first-time feature writer and director Jorge R. Gutiérrez oozes affection for departing from the tradition of family fare everywhere he can, including ramping up the gothic, del Toro-esque touches, playfully bathing dark material in an abundance of colour, rendering villains in metal in contrast to the wooden heroes, and using Ice Cube as a hip hop overseer of all life. It's the little things like this that make The Book of Life as fun as it sounds — and it already sounds incredibly fun. Far removed from the usual movies of the season, this is one magically macabre cinema outing.
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