Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez
Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Lansdale
Voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube
This is the golden age of film animation. Studios have found that animated films are relatively cheap to make, and can make a hatful of money. Of course, the assumption is that animation is for children, and films are usually aimed at that audience, with some hints to keep their parents amused. But sometimes a film comes along that aims at a slightly older audience, and last year, this brought the delight that is The Book of Life.
The film leans heavily on Mexican mythology. A museum tour guide takes a group of unruly children to see the Mexican town of San Angel, whose story is in the book of life.
It starts out with a wager. La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castill0), who rules the Land of the Remembered (basically, heaven) joins in a bet with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (the opposite). In the town, there are three children: Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. The bet is as to who will marry Maria when they grow up. La Muerte picks Manolo; Xibalba, picks Joaquin and, of course, cheats by giving him a medal that will make him invulnerable.
Years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) becomes a musician, against the wishes of his father, who wants him to join in the family tradition and become a bullfighter. Joaquin (Channing Tatum), aided by his magic medal, has become a war hero. When Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from several years in Spain, they both woo her, and when it looks like Manolo is going to win, Xibalba kills him. But that’s only the beginning…
The plot is filled with nice twists and surprises and never goes exactly where you expect it to. The visual style of the film is striking. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez uses bright colors and Mexican motifs through out. One subtle conceit is that many of the characters are made to look like wooden dolls, like the dolls in the museum. The design is awash with color and the characters are like nothing else in film.* Guillermo del Toro produced the film and you can see how he would have liked the style.
The movie did OK, but was not a massive success.** Certainly it wasn’t something that aimed directly at kids (though certainly kids could enjoy it), and, unfortunately, adults are reluctant to go to animated films alone. At this writing, I don’t know if it’ll be an Oscar contender (but, in any case, it won’t win), but you’d be hard pressed to find a better movie this year – animated or not.
*I had caught a few ads for it, then forgot it. When I saw the title in a theater (second run), I didn’t place it, but one look at the movie poster and I knew exactly what it was.
**Possibly the title hurt; for most Americans, it doesn’t evoke anything.