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Review: The Book of Life

November 3, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Book of Life Poster

There are many films to honour Halloween and Christmas, and now the November 2nd celebration of the Day of the Dead gets its own film in The Book of Life, a bright and vibrant piece of animation that authentically honours the Mexican tradition.

The film opens with a modern school group taking a field trip to the museum, where the tour guide (Christina Applegate) tells them one of the many stories from the Book of Life.  This particular tale follows Manolo (Diego Luna), a bullfighter who will not kill, and celebrated fighter and town ladies man Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who are both vying for the hand of their headstrong childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana).

But their love triangle is being influenced by a bad bet between the shapeshifting La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the guardians of the two underworlds, and whoever Maria chooses will have profound effects.  When Manolo is killed, he must travel through the heavenly Land of the Remembered and finally the hellish Land of the Forgotten, to find his way back to the Land of the Living and set things right.

Animated at the Texas-based Reel FX, who made their debut with last year’s Free Birds, The Book of Life demonstrates the studio carving out a distinct voice for themselves.  There are some beautiful visuals in the spirit worlds, with the glorious colour and vibrancy of the Land of the Remembered matched by the striking starkness of the Land of the Forgotten.  The characters themselves, shown as handcrafted wood carvings within the story, are impressively designed and keep with the traditional themes.

The narrative structure of the story being told at a museum is arguably needless and a bit distracting, and more there just to keep kids in the audience engaged, as are some of the more juvenile attempts at humour.  But The Book of Life certainly gets points for being a wholly unique piece of family friendly entertainment, and more than makes up for any minor shortcomings with a big heart and complete devotion to authentically representing the Mexican folklore.

Director Jorge R. Gutierrez clearly has a deep love for his culture, which adds a refreshing sense of authenticity to the story, and the touch of producer Guillermo Del Toro is also felt throughout.  A good choice for future Day of the Dead celebrations, The Book of Life is a visual treat, with splendid animation, unique characters and a sweet message.

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