Hollywood doesn’t put out many movies about Latinos that are pitched toward a general audience, let alone ones that are aimed specifically at families. The last such films that Hispanics could hold up with pride to their non-Latino friends were Robert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids movies, which happened long enough ago that the girl who starred in them is now a married woman. So it’s refreshing to have The Book of Life, an animated movie geared toward the holiday of Día de los Muertos. Its mere existence is remarkable, but fortunately, this glorious-looking and cleverly scripted film has lots more going for it than just historical value.
Set in the mythical past in a Mexican small town called San Ángel, the movie centers on María (voiced by Zoë Saldana), the mayor’s willful daughter who returns from boarding school in Spain to find two close childhood friends now competing to marry her. Observing from the afterlife, the rulers of the underworld — the kind La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and the devious Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) — wager on which husband María will choose. Xibalba backs the brave but narcissistic soldier Joaquín (voiced by Channing Tatum), while the death goddess bets on Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), an aspiring musician whose family pressures him to join their proud line of bullfighters.
The first thing you notice about this movie is that it looks like nothing else you’ve seen. That is down to the partially Dallas-based animation firm of Reel FX and writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez, a first-time filmmaker with a background in TV (El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera). He takes liberal inspiration from Mexican folk art, with the gods made out of sugar and tar and the living characters imagined as wood puppets — stare closely at Joaquín’s face, and you’ll see chin dimples carved into the grain. San Ángel resembles the set of a spaghetti Western, while the underworld abounds with bright colors and stylized geometrical shapes. Gutierrez’ inventiveness bursts from every corner and even extends to details like Xibalba’s eyes, which are tiny sugar skulls. Not since The Lego Movie has an animated film given us so much to look at.
The writing gives an entry point to those who aren’t familiar with the Mexican holiday, especially through a framing device in which a tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) narrates the film’s story to a bunch of Anglo kids. When one character dies and travels to the underworld, a kid exclaims, “What is it with Mexicans and death?” For his part, Ice Cube contributes a distinctively non-Mexican take on the role of a candle-making demigod. Even the little throwaway lines are fun, as when Manolo’s tartly funny, endlessly knitting abuelita (voiced by Grey DeLisle) suddenly shows up in the afterlife and explains her presence with one word: “Cholesterol.”
The score by Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla incorporates some good bits as well. Manolo expresses his alienation at one point by picking up his guitar and launching into a mariachi-tinged version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” while a hard-drinking mariachi band (voiced by Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, and Ricardo “El Mandril” Sanchez) try to help Manolo woo María with their renditions of Rod Stewart and Biz Markie. Their efforts don’t go well. The voice cast is stocked with other venerable Latino actors: Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Ana de la Reguera, Eugenio Derbez, and Plácido Domingo, the last as a dead ancestor of Manolo’s who wishes he had given up bullfighting for an opera career.
With all this, it’s easy to overlook the main characters’ lack of interesting qualities or Gutierrez’ inability to accommodate the buildup of plotlines near the end, which involves climactic sequences in San Ángel and the underworld that are too jarringly different from each other. Still, he’s created something unique and beautiful and more often than not funny. The joy and exuberance on display in The Book of Life is entirely in keeping with the holiday that it celebrates.
The Book of Life
Voices by Diego Luna, Zoë Saldana, and Channing Tatum. Written and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez.