‘The Book of Life’: Too Much Plot, Gorgeously Illustrated

Just in time for the fall holiday season, 20th Century Fox and Reel FX Animation Studios pop out a film for the kiddies that’s a bit off the beaten animated track. It’s The Book of Life, directed and co-written (with Douglas Langdale) by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced by, among others, Guillermo del Toro.

What’s different about this movie begins with the “fall holiday” to which it is tied. The reference point here is not Halloween but the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. (Interestingly, that was one of the titles of the film during development, until somebody realized a movie called “The Day of the Dead” could be a hard sell for the wee bairns.)

On the Day of the Dead, families gather to commemorate recently passed-away members as well as long-lost ancestors. The event can cover three days (overlapping the Anglo celebrations of Halloween and All Saint’s Day), and often involves making the favorite foods of the dearly departed and having a picnic at their graveside.

The Book of Life uses that celebration as a jumping-off point. The deceased who are honored every year abide in an afterworld known as the Land of the Remembered, ruled by the beautiful La Muerte. The dead with no memorializers are stuck in the awful Land of the Forgotten, run by the evil Xibalba. These two spirits make a little wager: In the land of the living, two boys, Manolo and Joaquin, are in love with the same girl, Maria. If Joaquin wins Maria’s heart, Xibalba and La Muerte will switch places.

Then follows 90 minutes of some of the wackiest animation ever filmed. The biggest drawback of The Book of Life is that plot-wise there’s just too much of it. Apparently after Gutierrez came up with a complete script, Langdale was brought in to rewrite the whole thing. And boy does it show. First there’s the wager between Xibalba and La Muerte, then the whole courtship contretemps between the kids (who we watch grown into young adults.)

Also, since this is Hollywood, there’s the requisite Daddy-issue stuff: Manolo wants to be a musician but his disapproving father demands he perpetuate the family business and become a bullfighter. Manolo doesn’t mind the red-cape-waving thing, but he refuses to actually kill a bull. Meanwhile Joaquin lives in the shadow of his father, a great soldier who died at the hands of a bandit named Chakal. Well guess what? Chakal’s back and he’s heading for Joaquin.

Maria’s got her Daddy-issues as well. She loves Manolo but her father wants her to marry Joaquin because he’s the only one who can protect the village from Chakal. (Unbeknownst to everybody in town, Xibalba has secretly given a medal to Joaquin which makes him unbeatable.)

And just when all of these shenanigans come to a head, two of the lead characters die and suddenly the story moves to the Land of the Remembered and the introduction of yet another god, the Candle Maker, who oversees the lives of every living person on earth.

But you don’t want to get too invested in this place because we’ve got another stop—the Land of the Forgotten and a big bullfight which will determine the fate of the village we left some time ago, now under attack by Chakal.

Oh, and did I mention the movie’s framing device? This whole thing is told by a museum docent to a bunch of school kids using little wooden toys representing the characters.

Whew, that’s a lot of stuff! And the funny part is, none of it is really what The Book of Life is about. There’s simply too much going on for any one thread to have emotional resonance. Instead, this movie is going to be remembered (and rightly so) for its dazzling animation.

A Realm Where More Is Not Too Much

It is the filmmaker’s stated objective to tell the story in the style of Mexican art … and he has more than succeeded.

In case you’re not familiar with that look, here’s what you need to know: Everything is decorated to within an inch of its stylistic life. Textures, patterns, miniatures, metal and woodwork, carvings, flowers, fabrics—you name it and you’ll find it crowded into a piece of rustic Mexican art.

My son’s grandmother is Mexican and visiting her house is always an eye-popping experience. Especially curious to a gringo like me is that much of Mexican art features skeletons and bones. The Book of Life is a like a trip to her house—if you’ve done a lot of peyote first.

And it’s absolutely beautiful. The overstuffed plot might be a problem but the sumptuous visuals are not. A number of scenes are literally breathtaking, thanks to the art and production design by Paul Sullivan and Simon Valdimir Varela. I was recently watching the 1940 Disney film Fantasia and wishing I could own some of the original animation cells from that movie (particularly the floating milkweed maidens in the “Nutcracker Suite” section, if anyone has some extra cash and doesn’t know what to get me for Christmas.) I was feeling the same pangs of covetousness during this movie as well. There are visual moments in The Book of Life I would happily frame and hang on a wall.

When we’re in the land of the living, the characters are presented as expanded versions of their wooden toy models used in the framing device. When we travel to the various underworlds the characters are now skeletons, but intricately carved skeletons festooned with decoration and design. Although I’m a big fan of Pixar-style animation, The Book of Life makes much of that seem anemic and plastic by comparison.

I should mention that The Book of Life is available in both 2-D and 3-D formats. I saw it in 2-D. (My belief is that if Orson Welles didn’t need 3-D, you don’t either.) But I’m intrigued by what the 3-D experience might be. So if I get a break from meeting my editor’s insatiable demand for copy, Copy, COPY! you might just see me at this movie again.

For Halloween parties, Ted Hoover goes as a Pittsburgh-based harried film critic.