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Movie review: ‘The Book of Life’ is adorably macabre, nostalgic fun




Warning: Potential spoilers.

No other culture in the world quite has the cheery perspective on death that Mexicans do, which is why Guillermo del Toro's animated feature “The Book of Life” will make for some refreshing viewing among all the shadowy skulls and bloody ghosts of the usual Halloween movie fare.

The movie begins with a bunch of rowdy American kids entering a museum. They are taken to a secret entrance by tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate), who proceeds to show them some of the wonders of Mexico—including the Book of Life, which contains all the world's stories.

Mary Beth shows the schoolkids the Book of Life. All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox
 
She begins telling them one: gods of the dead and married couple La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Pearlman) have taken bets during one Day of the Dead as to whom the feisty Maria (Zoe Saldana) of San Angel will marry—hot-blooded soldier's son Joaquin (Channing Tatum) or sweet musician/bullfighter Manolo (Diego Luna).

The prize? If Maria marries Joaquin, Xibalba gets to rule the Land of the Remembered, a place where all the remembered dead go, and La Muerte must stay in the Land of the Forgotten, where forgotten souls dissipate. If Maria marries Manolo, Xibalba may no longer meddle in the affairs of the living.

La Muerte and Xibalba discuss their wager
 
From their time as children, it seems as if Maria will choose Manolo, as before she leaves for her studies in Spain, they share a tender moment where he gifts her with a piglet named Chuy and she replaces the guitar she broke when she set all the butcher's pigs loose on the town.

Even after many years—during which Joaquin becomes a soldier and proves himself a hero all over the country, Manolo cannot reconcile his love of playing guitar with the family profession of bullfighting, and Maria returns from Spain as a proper (butt-kicking) lady—it still seems as if she will choose Manolo. Xibalba sends a snake to poison Manolo, forcing his soul on a journey across two worlds with four goals: save San Angel from the fearsome outlaw Chakal (Dan Navarro), save San Angel's dead inhabitants from being thrown into the Land of the Forgotten, find himself, and reunite with Maria.

First off, the movie's art and animation is visually sumptuous, a glory to behold from one scene to the next. With the exception of La Muerte, Xibalba, Mary Beth, and the American kids, all the characters have been rendered like dolls with moveable joints—perfect for emphasizing that the people of San Angel are just characters in a story, pawns in a game of gods.

They are set against wondrous backdrops in riots of colors and skulls and cathedrals and Aztec temples—especially in the Land of the Remembered, perfectly capturing the burst of vibrancy of a Mexican cemetery and the reverence with which Mexicans regard their dead.

The reason behind that is because animator Jorge Gutierrez has lamented the disparity between the art of movies and their artbooks.

"The mandate of this movie was: Our 'Art of' book is going to look exactly like the movie. And every artist poured their heart and soul into that idea," he said in an interview with HollywoodReporter.com.

The Land of the Remembered
 
Another amazing aspect is how “The Book of Life” deploys its humor via a combination of self-awareness (“What kind of story is this?! We're just kids!” the Emo Kid says in the frame story when it seems as if the story will take a turn into tragedy), sight gags, songs straight out of pop culture as the punchline for many jokes, as sung mostly by Manolo and sometimes, his mariachi friends. Songs include Biz Markie's “Just a Friend,” Mumford & Sons' “I Will Wait,” and Elvis Presley's “Can't Help Falling in Love with You.”

Notably, however, the loudest laughs in the cinema came from the row some friends and I occupied—and for different reasons. I'm sure “The Book of Life” will land with both kids and adults alike, but most of the humor seems targeted for a certain generation, and maybe even people with a certain taste in music—I certainly didn't know many of the songs, but because they were successfully reinterpreted for context, I was laughing anyway.

The voice acting was top-notch most of the time, although afterward, I questioned why the inhabitants of San Angel and of the lands of the dead were not all given Spanish accents. Applegate's Mary Beth seems to ocillate between cool and poised and excited in an almost strained kind of way in some scenes.

There was one minor point that naggled at me toward the end. This is indeed Manolo's story, which revolves around his search for identity and his love of Maria. However, even after many instances of proving that she is more than capable of handling herself, Maria, student of fencing and kung-fu, is still captured and carried up a tower by the monstrous Chakal a la damsel in distress. She manages to temper this potentially thorny point by snorting, “Men. So typical.”

Joaquin, Manolo, and Maria
 
One last thing. Only after I watched this movie did I realize—because I am a serious person wrapped around the core of a giddy child—that it's been a while since I watched something that had a storyline with so much heart and good, clean fun. “The Book of Life” has such a storyline, but do not dismiss it as simple: it manages to touch on familial expectations, gender dynamics, fate vs. agency, and self-acceptance.

If you actually stop and think about some of the jokes, especially those about dying and being dead—which you probably won't think about unless you're that serious a person and not at all distracted by the movie's frenetic pace and lovely visuals—they're actually pretty sad and morbid. But the point of this movie seems to be that death is just another stage, one that need not be so somber, in the way that the Day of the Dead or Halloween is fun for many. You have to shake off your baggage and your assumptions, let out your inner child, and celebrate both life and death with all the fervor you can, which is exactly what the characters in “The Book of Life” do, be they god or mortal.

Meanwhile, I'll be waiting for the DVD release and the artbook. — BM, GMA News

“The Book of Life” will be in cinemas on October 16.
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