Friday, October 17, 2014
Many years ago, I made the mistake of dismissing The Nightmare Before Christmas as a visually spectacular but hollow animated musical. Yeah, I didn't get it. It isn't that nostalgia has made the movie feel closer to a classic or that over time its style has eclipsed its substance. In a fundamental way, I've come to realize, its style is its substance. I shall not make the same mistake with The Book of Life. While not the animation game-changer that The Nightmare Before Christmas may have been, The Book of Life perhaps has even more room to grow into a classic in the coming years. And curiously it has a similar pedigree.
Just like Nightmare benefited from having its imaginative filmmaker Henry Selick overseen by fantasy director Tim Burton, The Book of Life is the vision of Jorge R. Gutierrez (Nickelodeon's El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) as filtered through the frightful sensibility of horror auteur Guillermo del Toro. With a dash of Mexican folklore and a skewed perspective from its mythical Underworld, The Book of Life celebrates neither Halloween or Christmas but the Day of the Dead a phantasmagorical mixture of the two.
Implementing a framing device in which museum tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) shares a tale with her delinquent young charges, we meet Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana), a trio of childhood friends who form a love triangle as adults. La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo), queen of the Land of the Remembered (the happier version of the Afterlife) bets that the underachieving Manolo will win Maria's heart. But the duplicitous Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (an Afterlife you don't want to end up in) sides with the egotistical Joaquin. At stake in this wager is a reversal of which land each of the creatures ends up ruling.
An abundance of music, both original and recognizable, fills out the spaces in between this admittedly overfamiliar romance with a supernatural twist. Though there's also a wealth of contemporary humor aimed at entertaining parents taking their kids to see The Book of Life, the ubiquitous pop culture signifiers border on excess. In other words, the filmmakers' insecurity about the crossover Latino material may have pushed them to rely on pop songs and one-liners, running the risk that the movie might one day feel dated.
But the pros far outweigh the cons. The vocal performances are distinctive and memorable, a result of the casting of a panoply of Latino actors. And the art direction is among the finest seen in an animated film in quite some time (that's including Pixar's), especially once the movie transitions into its Afterlife setting. If anything, The Book of Life should have spent less time setting up its mundane love triangle in the relatively ordinary world of the living and emphasize the folkloric beauty that emerges once its characters end up in the Land of the Remembered. (Keep that in mind should the film merit a sequel, filmmakers.) Taken for what it is, however, The Book of Life is a triumphant visual spectacle, lush and gorgeous in its tiniest details. For right now, that's sufficient. For the future, it may even be more than enough.