By Andrew Aulner, Contributor
I have to be honest; I went to see Jorge Gutierrez’s “The Book of Life,” a 3D-animated film co-produced by famed director Guillermo del Toro, with the expectation that it would be a mediocre children’s film with nothing better to offer than the occasional bit of childish humor and some decent animation. I’m glad to say that I was very wrong.
While “The Book of Life” lacks a story that is innovative enough to put it on the same level as recent animated films like “The LEGO Movie” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” it makes up for this flaw by presenting excellent voice acting, quirky (if sometimes juvenile) humor, and beautiful animation.
The story begins with a modern-day museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) telling a story to a group of rebellious kids. Her tale concerns the two gods of the dead: La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), who rules the festive Land of the Remembered, and her husband, Xibalba (Guillermo del Toro favorite Ron Perlman), who rules the destitute Land of the Forgotten.
These two former lovers decide to make a bet. Choosing the small town of San Angel, they place wagers over which of two young best friends, Manolo and Joaquín, will win the hand of the town leader’s daughter, María. La Muerta blesses Manolo for his kindness, while Xibalba gives Joaquín an enchanted medal that makes him invincible.
Several years later, the boys have grown into men. Manolo (Diego Luna) must reconcile his father’s desire for him to become a bullfighter and his own love of playing music. Meanwhile, Joaquín (Channing Tatum) has become a decorated hero thanks to his secret magical advantage.
The film’s action continues as, on the Day of the Dead, the two friends compete for the hand of the beautiful, fully matured María (Zoe Saldana) and the fearsome bandit known only as Chakal (Dan Navarro) prepares to attack San Angel. Manolo must find out how to stay true to himself in order to succeed in saving the town and finding love.
Overall, the plot is relatively basic: the hero ultimately needs to choose whether to follow his heart or do what is expected of him. It’s a scenario that has been played out in countless kids movies over the years. Granted, the film adds a few interesting twists to the mix, but the basic story is the same. Fortunately, there is more to the movie than just the plot.
The voice work on this film is phenomenal. The majority of the cast is of Hispanic descent, giving the movie a firm basis in the Mexican culture which it celebrates both visually and narratively.
My favorite performance in The Book of Life was that of Héctor Elizondo, the voice of Manolo’s father Carlos, who wants his son to become a bullfighter like all of his ancestors but also wants to love his son as a person. Elizondo’s performance gives the character dignity while also conveying the conflict he is feeling over who his son is versus who Carlos wants him to be.
The jokes in “The Book of Life” aren’t terrifically sophisticated, but the humor isn’t altogether childish either. Some of the jokes work well, such as when Manolo and Joaquín stoop to childish slap-fighting over María and reveal their immaturity, while other gags fall flat or grow stale, like when Manolo’s cousins talk like stereotypical valley girls even as they’re fighting bandits.
By far the best part of The Book of Life is the animation, which brings to life the afterlife according to Mexican folklore. The visuals are vibrant, colorful, and at times, even gorgeous.
The characters are distinct and recognizable, and the backgrounds are simply splendid. Reel FX Animation Studios, the up-and-coming animation arm of Reel FX Creative Studios, has outdone itself on this animation in this movie.
“The Book of Life” may not break new ground in the plot it presents or the humor it injects into the story, and may only be good rather than great, but it certainly rises above this year’s run-of-the-mill fare as a fun, well-acted, and enjoyably animated movie.