Jorge Gutierrez’ The Book of Life is a visually stunning animated feature that balances action-adventure and romance themes to tell an epic tale of Mexico. I don’t think I’ve seen so much vibrant color in an animated film outside of Rio. The visual basis for the film is Mexican folk art, specially the dioramas, tree of life statuary and paper mache dolls associated with the Day of the Dead celebration. These rich and brilliant colors take us through a tale of love that becomes so grand that everyone living and dead has a stake in the question of who Maria (Zoe Saldana) marries.
The movie is framed as a story told to a group of children on a field trip to a museum on the Day of the Dead. Recognizing that the bus of children have been sent there as a punishment for misbehavior, a tour guide (Christina Applegate) takes them to an exhibit on Mexican art and folk art. There she begins to read a tale from the Book of Life: The rivalry of Joaquin and Manolo for the hand of Maria. The rivalry began when they were young friends and would have gone without much notice, but La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the queen of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perleman), the king of the Land of the Forgotten, witness the budding rivalry and place a wager on its outcome. Xibalba has long been tired of ruling the Land of the Forgotten and if Maria chooses Joaquin, La Muerte will change places with him.
Two beings of the afterlife aren’t going to leave everything to chance. La Muerte frees Manolo (Diego Luna) to remain true to the generous spirit of his mother while Xibalba gives Joachin (Channing Tatum) a medal that prevents him from dying in battle. Both of these gifts affect the boys in positive and negative ways that will be worked out through the story. Joaquin may be capable of great acts of courage, but his reliance on the medal makes him publicly vain and at heart a coward. He has the skills to defeat his rivals in pursuit of love. On the other hand, Manolo develops the gifts necessary to win a woman’s heart even if he lacks the desire to completely defeat his enemies.
The children are soon separated. Maria is sent to Spain to a convent, while Manolo and Joaquin remain behind to become a matador and a soldier. Manolo and Joaquin remain friends until Maria returns at which point they begin a competition to win her heart, or at least convince her father to make her marry one of the two. Both will use their strengths to woo her, but at the end of the first round, Manolo is completely humiliated and outcast socially. He has what it takes to be a romantic interest for Maria, and she obviously prefers his humility and interest in romance, but after an almost successful serenade, she lets him know that she won’t make it easy for him. He will need to prove that he loves her and that he isn’t just interested in her as a prize in a competition. The rest of the movie covers the trials he goes through to prove that he loves her as well as to convince everyone else that he is as capable of the acts of courage as Jaochin. If he must rewrite the rules of heaven and earth to do that, he will…and he does.
To say that The Book of Life is a love story is a bit of an overstatement. It is really the story of the making of a hero worthy of a woman’s love. It is a given that Maria is worthy – Manolo is the one who must do all of the proving. It is not the type of romance we have become accustomed to in the recent history of great animated lovers. The lovers don’t grow closer by facing challenging adventures together (Shrek, Tangled, Frozen, Pocahontas, Mulan, Ratatouille, etc.). The couple spends most of the move apart and the narrative primarily focuses on male half of the couple. It is probably that separation that makes the movie lack a little sentimental connection for the couple that would cause us root for Manolo unconditionally. However, without that separation, Manolo’s story wouldn’t be nearly as exciting, and the path to prove his love so heroic. He makes an incredible journey into exotic realms and faces seemingly insurmountable challenges to prove that he is more than just a musician forced to be a matador. If only we could all have lovers like that.
If the Lego Movie hadn’t been released earlier this year, I’d tab the The Book of Life as the favorite to win the Oscar nod. It is by far the best animated feature I have seen in months. The surly children in the museum were enchanted by the tale, and I agree that the story of Manolo and Maria deserves to be retold so that our lovers will always remain in the Land of the Remembered.
**** of five.
IMDB: The Book of Life