The visuals outshine the story in “The Book of Life,” a lively animated tale that mixes age-old myths with today’s toon tropes. But what lovely visuals they are. The feature debut of smallscreen animator Jorge R. Gutierrez (co-creator of Nickelodeon’s “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”) proves to be perfectly charming in relaying the tale of a lopsided love triangle set against the backdrop of Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday. And yet it hardly matters what the characters are saying (or occasionally singing) when their warmly handcrafted appearance keeps stealing the spotlight. Opening domestically three weeks after Focus/Laika’s “The Boxtrolls” and three weeks ahead of Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” “Book” should have time to carve out its own space in the family entertainment marketplace and could become a significant sleeper worldwide, especially if Latin audiences respond to the pic’s universal, yet culturally specific, delights.
As if to ensure every viewer has a window into the story, the central narrative is framed as a legend being told by a motherly museum tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) to a group of rebellious school kids on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead. While that choice initially plays like an unnecessary distancing device, it also reinforces the mythic quality of what we’re watching (and eventually gives the young listeners the opportunity to offer a few adorable asides). Plus, it explains why everyone in the tour guide’s tale looks like a handmade wooden toy — a captivating visual conceit.
Ever since they were children, music-loving bullfighter Manolo (Diego Luna) and burly bandit vanquisher Joaquin (Channing Tatum) have been enamored with the same girl: feisty free spirit Maria (Zoe Saldana). So they’re equally heartbroken when Maria’s unconventional behavior gets her shipped off to Europe by her strict father (Carlos Alazraqui). It’s not until her 18th birthday that she returns to the town of San Angel to reignite the rivalry between Manolo and Joaquin, each hoping to be the one to marry their mutual true love.
As our narrator explains, there’s even more at stake in this competition than Maria’s heart. Each young man has been backed by a different deity of the spirit realm. Sensitive Manolo has been selected by the kindly La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules over the joyful Land of the Remembered. Manly Joaquin is the choice of her devious husband, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who oversees the miserable Land of the Forgotten. A victory for Team Manolo means Xibalba can no longer meddle in the lives of humans, but a victory for Team Joaquin will banish La Muerte to the Forgotten realm and release Xibalba to lord over the Remembered. No fair guessing in advance who wins (and at least there are a few twists along the way).
If the idea of two men fighting over a pretty lady seems a bit retrograde in the post-“Frozen” era of animation, Gutierrez and co-writer Doug Langdale make it clear that Maria is no shrinking violet. She’s the one in control — despite her father’s clear preference for Joaquin, if only to help save the city from rampaging metal-encased monster Chakal (Dan Navarro). Imbued with an inner fire thanks to Saldana’s impassioned vocal turn, Maria also stands strong for her pet cause (literally, she loves animals and adopts a pig about to be slaughtered) and proves capable of inspiring the townspeople with stirring rhetoric at pivotal moments.
Sure, the pic stacks its soulmate deck firmly in favor of Manolo — he refuses to kill the bulls he fights, composes original love songs on the guitar Maria gifted him with an inscription reading “Always play from the heart” (the music is courtesy of Gustavo Santaolalla, lyrics by Paul Williams), and is keenly voiced by the ever-likable Luna (who also croons the songs) — but the choice is up to Maria.
To that end, the pompous Joaquin overcomes obvious comparisons to “Beauty and the Beast” villain Gaston with a healthy dose of Tatum’s signature affable charm (one possible factor in the otherwise decidedly inauthentic casting choice). That helps to lend at a least a modicum of suspense to the romantic drama. And it only increases once Manolo finds himself on a temporary detour in the afterlife, where he’s reunited with his deceased relatives on a quest to find La Muerte and return to Maria.
Between the framing device, multiple musical numbers (including a handful of brief Latin-infused covers of recognizable pop hits), three leads, two supernatural realms and entire vibrant village of San Angel, “The Book of Life” is undoubtedly stuffed with more business than its fleet, kid-friendly running time can properly handle. Yet Gutierrez’s confident delivery of the material remains so buoyant and passionately felt throughout that he almost gets away with it. It’s not until a final epic battle with the otherwise superfluous Chakal that the burden of trying to play to as wide an audience as possible finally gets the best of him.
Fortunately, that’s not what audiences will remember. Repping a major step forward for Dallas-based Reel FX Animation Studios (after their anemic feature bow on last year’s “Free Birds”), the beautifully rendered CG animation brings an unusually warm and heartfelt quality to the high-tech medium and emerges as the film’s true calling card. Creative character design by Gutierrez and wife Sandra Equihua is a consistent treat, especially the playful touches in the winged Xibalba and regal La Muerte, and the intricately designed worlds rep a modest triumph for production designer Simon Valdimir Varela. The ravishing color explosion when Manolo enters the Land of the Remembered single-handedly justifies the pic’s 3D presentation.
“The Book of Life” also marks the most significant role yet for filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in an animated project. A frequent consultant and executive producer for DreamWorks Animation (where Gutierrez originally had this film set up, before creative differences led him elsewhere), Del Toro was clearly a hands-on creative producer here, bolstering the visual aesthetic of a production that can more comfortably introduce a younger generation to his darkly fanciful sensibilities. There would certainly be cause for excitement should Del Toro follow in the footsteps of fellow live-action visionary Tim Burton and helm his own animated feature.