Visuals enchant, plot lags in ‘Book of Life’
Vibrant, encompassing, kaleidoscopic and free-flowing: these words evoke images from “The Epic of American Civilization,” commonly known as the Orozco Mural. Its expressive richness was typical of the early 20th century’s Mexican muralism movement, spearheaded by Diego Rivera and Orozco himself. Director Jorge Gutierrez’s first animated feature film, “The Book of Life” (2014), brings muralism into the 21st century, creating a bustling, sumptuous 3-D adventure that explodes off the screen.
The film begins with the classic bucolic Disney fairy tale music (Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”), which is abruptly cut short by a rowdy band of students in detention on a museum field trip. In this era of animated films when production companies treat ideas like tubes of toothpaste, squeezing the “Ice Age” and “Shrek” series into four films each, Gutierrez makes clear that his fare will be minty fresh. He employs a stylized, robust computer animation style, which grows on you despite being initially foreign.
Structured like “Shrek” (2001), the film is narrated by a museum guide named Mary Beth (Christina Applegate), who tells a timeless tale from the massive tome, “The Book of Life.” La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the loving goddess ruling the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the Hades-like god ruling the Land of the Forgotten, wager over two young boys, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who both seek the heart of the lovely Maria (Zoe Saldana). The young children are responsible for the fate of the underworld, as Joaquin’s success would let Xibalba take over the Land of the Remembered.
Manolo, the more romantic, sympathetic suitor, is caught between his longing to play guitar and his father’s demand that he continue the Sanchez lineage of famous matadors. Joaquin is Tatum animated, embodying all of his swagger with large muscles, military medals and a sexy mustache. Maria, like a young Joan of Arc, leads her hometown against invaders, appeasing feminists with her independent, anti-housewife outlook. Like a cross between “Jules and Jim” (1962) and the tale of Job, the trio is inseparable until Xibalba meddles, fooling Manolo into killing himself to rescue Maria from the dead.
If you thought the animation couldn’t get any more dramatic or lurid, you were mistaken — Manolo’s entrance into the Land of the Remembered evokes Dorothy’s entry into Oz. Nearly psychedelic, the effervescent underworld captures the playful, anti-morose visions of death in Mexican folklore, packed with painted skeletons and parade floats. Only LSD will get you close to this level of visual stimulation.
Like something from a “Super Mario” level, Manolo must survive deadly mazes and a murderous giant to reach Xibalba, the “boss,” who challenges him to defeat all the bulls his ancestors had slain to earn back his life on Earth. PETA fans will rejoice, as Manolo is adamantly pro-animal-life, conquering raging bulls by dishing out modern pop hits with his swoon-worthy guitar playing. With a new lease on life, Manolo can now save his town, San Angel, from the invading bandit Chakal with the help of his friends, reincarnated family and a band of dangerously adorable pigs.
While the film can be accused of having too many didactic one-liners or not enough conflict in its plot, it adamantly addresses a theme rarely tackled in children’s films: death. Yes, the film includes messages of being yourself and loving others — “Frozen” (2013), anyone? — but its central tenet focuses on the innocuousness and quasi-beauty of dying.
This is not, however, Tom Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). Like the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the film celebrates the memory of the deceased, a contrast to Halloween’s demonic depiction of death.
Using a charming lens, Gutierrez creates an artistic film with a Mexican influence that will spice up the Halloween season. Its colorful flair stands to remind us that the bloodthirsty zombies and bed sheet ghosts are mere American folklore — nothing to be feared.
“The Book of Life” is showing daily at the Nugget in 2-D at 6:50 p.m., and 3-D at 4:30 p.m.