We can all appreciate the brilliant and gorgeous animated films of Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, but let's be honest that they all kind of look and feel the same. They're either selling toys or retelling old fairy tales, and while that doesn't diminish how good they are the animated field has been in desperate need of a kick in the pants for a long time. Actually, what it needed was a dash of spice, or in the case of the visually breath-taking The Book of Life, a dash of Mexican flavor.
Directed with obvious passion by Jorge Gutierrez, The Book of Life is a smorgasbord for the eyes, bursting with colors and energy like an overstuffed piñata. It's good to see a film that doesn't try to diminish its Latin heritage, but embraces it in a universal story of love and friendship based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, the "Day of the Dead". The story begins simply enough, both narratively and visually, with a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) introducing a group of kids to a very special exhibit. The story she tells involves powerful gods, best friends, magical realms, and lots of music. It follows the friendship of the passionate Manolo (Diego Luna), the spirited Maria (Zoe Saldana), and heroic Joaquin (Channing Tatum), all of whom are burdened by their families' expectations. Manolo has the heart of a musician but comes from a long line of brave bullfighters, while Joaquin was born to protect the town from a scourge of bandits. Once this part of the story gets into gear, the animation switches to something unlike anything we've seen before, with decorative wooden models reflecting the characters' personalities, and worlds that are never less than festive.
The boys may be pals but they both desire Maria's love, and that's when two scheming gods see fit to make a gamble on the outcome. The villainous Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman, confidante of producer Guillermo Del Toro) bets on the brave Joaquin, while his wife La Muerte (Kate de Castillo) chooses Manolo, with control over the "Land of the Remembered" the prize. Fearing he may lose the wager, Xibalba gives Joaquin a special medal imbuing him with courage and invulnerability, which he uses to become a greater hero than his legendary father. Manolo becomes a bullfighter who refuses to kill the animals he faces, bringing shame to the family. When a grown up Maria returns to town, they begin competing for her heart once again, and the gods can't help themselves from meddling.
A fun selection Latin-flavored renditions of Mumford & Sons, Radiohead, and Biz Markie hits give the film a distinct sound, and is a smart way to embrace multiple cultures maximum appeal. You can sense Del Toro's influence in every frame, especially when Manolo is forced to descend into the "Land of the Remembered" and the "Land of the Forgotten"; one a carnivale of colors the other a gloomy wasteland. But the real find here is Gutierrez in his feature debut, and in The Book of Life he's created an animated film with so much passion and soul it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Lego Movie, and at least for me it's even better. You can feel the love for his Mexican heritage in every character, from the luchadore-masked priests to the goofy mariachi bands. There's so much to take in that it's impossible to catch it all at once. Fortunately for us, The Book of Life is destined to go the way of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas as an annual holiday classic.