Charming, vibrant, and warm, the animated adventure The Book of Life is handily the best feature produced by Reel FX, which started predominantly a design and visual effects firm that specialized in commercials and apps and has now been making leaps to get in on the Oculus Rift bandwagon. Previously their feature efforts included the literal and figurative turkey Free Birds and the direct to video sequels in the Open Season franchise. Naturally, almost anything would be better than those films, but there’s a real effort on display in this Guillermo del Toro produced bit of funky folklore that suggests the upstart studio might be onto something.
Framed as a story being told to a bunch of “detention kids” on a field trip to a museum, writer and director Jorge R. Gutierrez tells his story through the use of characters designed to look like wooden figurines. It’s a fable that takes place on The Day of the Dead as an epic wager between the kindly La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, who rules the happy underworld, The Land of the Remembered) and the evil Xibalba (Ron Perlman, who rules the dreary and depressing Land of the Forgotten) is about to be settled. The two deities have picked sides in a love triangle on Earth between two men and a woman that has been brewing since they were all children and best friends. Manolo (Diego Luna) has been forced into the family profession of bullfighting, but he really wants to be a mariachi. He’s backed by the side of good. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) has become a prominent soldier and hero to the town with the help of a magical pendant given to him as a child by Xibalba. They’re both madly in love with Maria (Zoe Saldana), a supportive friend who probably could fall in love with either of them if she didn’t get rightfully pissed off about two dudes acting like children and fighting over her.
Book of Life comes aimed squarely at children, and that’s okay. It won’t do anything to bore adults, but the combination of the incredibly detailed and flashy animation and the all around silliness will do more for the 12 and under set than anyone else. The jokes aren’t aiming very high outside of some well placed sight gags that include goat poop, a pig stampede, and a crazed luchador priest. It’s a film designed to present life lessons and to help create an understanding of The Day of the Dead as being a fun holiday instead of a sombre or spooky one. Things get dark about halfway through, but the darkness gets cut with a winning sense of positivity and hope.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Book of Life on a thematic level comes in how progressive the film manages to be. While paying respect to the cultures being portrayed and only creating good natured jokes that make sense, there’s sometimes an interesting social bent the film takes on. Although Manolo comes from a family of bullfighters, he staunchly refuses to kill a bull in the ring, leading him to become a disgrace to the town and the family. It’s also something the film never forces the character to apologize for. The arrogant Joaquin in the later stages of the film begins to question what it truly means to be a soldier. Perhaps most progressive of all would be the undoubtedly feminist positioning of Maria, an educated woman with a quick wit, fighting skills, compassion, and no time at all for anyone that will underestimate her abilities. Despite the film ostensibly being about the fight for her affections, the fact that Gutierrez never makes her a damsel in distress and allows her a massive degree of agency is refreshing.
Of course, I’m a film critic so I can’t help but look deeper into why the film works for me. I’m not sure if it would be as special without any of those elements, though. It would still be a colourful and enjoyable afternoon at the movies for the kids, but it would be missing a lot of heart and brains. It’s a nice, seasonably appropriate treat for the family, especially those with little ones who would rather have fun than be spooked.