I'm a sap for a good love story. Who isn't?
That's why The Book of Life, 20th Century Fox's beautiful and surreal new animation, was a must-see. Toss in a little Guillermo del Toro (producing) and a one-two punch of Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana (voicing lead characters) and you've got me.
Directed by the ultra talented Jorge Gutierrez - a Mexican animator, painter, writer and director - The Book of Life feels like one long, moving painting; a series of gorgeous images arranged in succession to tell a classic love story. That story? Two boys vying for the heart of one girl...but with a mythical twist. The heart of said girl (Maria) - played in adult form by the lovely Ms. Saldana - could decide the fate of the afterlife, as La Muerte and Xibalba (rulers of said afterlife) wager that their respective suitor will win Maria's love.
Thus begins a tale of tradition and competition, rife with tropes on Mexican culture, love, and the mysterious "realm of the dead." Almost always light in tone, but with hints of menace scattered here and there, The Book of Life never fully gripped me, but mesmerized me all the same.
You can see del Toro's influence when we visit the land of the dead. That rare mix of frightful and fun - the likes of which we've come to expect from the Tim Burtons of the world - come to life when skull-faced ancestors reunite with their left-behind confidants. The film at large is about that unending connection we share with our passed loved ones. As the myth goes, on the Mexican "Day of the Dead," the ones we've lost cross the plane and are with us again. We might not see them, but their presence is felt. That message gets across, but is an afterthought behind a sprawling love story and a series of trite gimmicks.
Our two protagonists - guitar-strumming Manolo and fearless Joaquin - play well as competitors for the hand of town beauty Maria. We are placed in a backwards society, ruled by chauvinism and class divisions, and seemingly only Maria is awake enough to see the farce. Perhaps unintentionally, moments in the film feel sexist and racist, as Maria is belittled and our lovable Mariachi bandmates are mocked - but in the end, Manolo and Joaquin show there's good in this world, and that the most important traditions worth observing are love and friendship.
So is The Book of Life a good love story? It's certainly an engaging one, and a magical journey into a world you're not likely to have seen before. Don't expect big laughs - they come few and far-between - nor should you look for a new slant on the animated romance. But even if your heart and soul don't fall in love, your eyes certainly will. A visual wonder, and worth it on that note alone.
Check out the trailer below, and go see The Book of Life for yourself this Friday!