Movie Review: The Book of Life

IMDB, The Book of Life“The Book of Life” on IMDB

Family, 95 Minutes, 2014

Never (yet) having been Hispanic I must admit that my understanding of Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) relies mostly on faded memories of “Grim Fandango”. That said I’ve always had a firm impression that it would be right up my alley. Skeletons, food, cemeteries, food, family, food – that’s the kind of thing that I could really get behind.

Written and directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez [IMDB], who previously co-created the excellent “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera” [IMDB] for Nickelodeon. I remind you of this because otherwise the unique visual style may, like it did me, drive you crazy trying to remember where you’d seen it before. The characters have a wonderful tactile feel, like they’ve been carved from woodblocks, snipped from paper or punched out of leather.

The story borrows heavily from the Day of the Dead mythology and style but boils down to a classic trope. Manolo, Joaquin and Maria grow up together but are forced to split when Maria is sent away to school abroad. However the rulers of the lands of the dead make a wager on the children. La Muerte, ruler of the happy, colorful Land of the Remembered, is convinced that Manolo will, eventually marry Maria. Xibalba, ruler of the dreary, dry Land of the Forgotten, is sure that Joaquín will.

When Maria returns she finds her childhood friends have taken different paths . Manolo has begrudgingly set his music aside to follow the traditions of his famous bull-fighting family. Joaquín has become the hero of the town after protecting it from bandits, thanks in large part due to a medal of invulnerability bestowed upon him by the cheating Xibalba.

The story, of course, gets more complex as the friends vie for Maria’s attention. It ranges from the land of the living to the twin lands of the dead and back again in a whirlwind of color and good-natured peril. The movie is undeniably beautiful and while I think it would have significantly more successful as stop motion, anything that breaks the tired mold of computer animation is appreciated.

The movie joyously and unashamedly elevates warmth, family and community. It’s a strong message that is somehow (Disney!) told without orphans. It’s a fun, sweet movie with a great message that kids will love. It’s also got me interested in learning more about Día de Muertos.

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