The Book Of Life is gorgeous. Its colorful visual palette is based on Mexican folk art and Dia De Los Muertos imagery, a vibrant alternative to typical witches-and-pumpkins Halloween fare. The characters move around in a thoroughly realized universe full of imaginative and beautifully rendered detail. Too bad the rest of it isn’t more interesting.
But more about the look: Produced (but not directed) by Guillermo Del Toro, The Book Of Life is highly stylized, and the protagonists are designed to look like jointed wooden puppets (if alive) or skeletons (if dead) rather than “real” animated people. The bad guys, like a monster made from the skeletons of hundreds of slain bulls, are menacing and covered in spikes, and the good guys, like the heroine’s pet pig Chuy, are downright kawaii. The animation is stunning overall, but particularly in its use of texture—everything from the weave of fabric in a dress to the sugar-coated arms of death goddess La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) is meticulously rendered. Curiously, for a film that put so much effort into its visuals, the 3-D effects feel like an afterthought.
Ultimately, what drags The Book Of Life down is its insistence on trying to update an (original) folkloric story for a contemporary audience. In practice, this means adding some pop-cultural touches that only serve to take the viewer out of the fantastic setting. First of all, celebrity voices, that most nonessential of modern animation trends, are all over this thing. Most of them blend into the background (as they should), but Channing Tatum, miscast as a dashing war hero, sticks out like a sore thumb.
Second, and more egregious, is the film’s diegetic use of contemporary pop songs. Cheech Marin as a drunken mariachi singing Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” has its charms, but when the wannabe-troubadour hero, Manolo (Diego Luna), starts singing Radiohead’s “Creep” (taking out the “hell”s and “fuck”s, of course), the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear. Similarly, it’s always nice to hear the opening strains of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy Of Gold,” used here in a bullfighting scene—but then the beat drops. (The film’s original music, by Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla, is pretty forgettable, too.)
The Dia De Los Muertos influence is clearly felt in The Book Of Life’s attitude toward death. In the film, death is not an end to be feared, but a joyous opportunity to return to the loving embrace of venerated ancestors. This concept, with its accompanying themes of family and remembrance, is much more interesting than the Americanized A-plot, which is all about overcoming your fears and being yourself and making your own destiny and every other lesson from every kids’ movie ever. In trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible, The Book Of Life loses touch with the proud tradition that inspired it and becomes just another clichéd tale of true love triumphant.