Review: 'Book of Life' shows vibrant Mexican Halloween

By Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 20 2014 01:40 PM | Updated as of Oct 20 2014 09:40 PM

Romantic Manolo, scrappy Joaquin and smart Maria were three close childhood pals. Maria got sent to Europe to study. Joaquin trained as a military officer. Manolo was discouraged by his father from his musical aspirations, forcing him instead to take up bullfighting, which is the traditional Sanchez family occupation. When Maria returns to town after several years, Joaquin and Manolo vie for her heart.

Meanwhile, the two lords of the underworld, La Muerta (Mistress of the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (Master of the Land of the Forgotten) take a bet as to whom Maria will marry. On the Day of the Dead, one of these deities unfairly intervenes. This leads to an adventure which will bring the characters from the land of the living to the land of the dead and back again.

The most striking feature of this film is the animation style. The human characters are made to look like wooden puppets. The artworks were so ingeniously crafted such that each character is distinct from each other. The three main human characters all look very good and noble. The supporting characters are rather on the atypical distorted side in their rendition, and these may need getting used to.

The background artwork is no less spectacular. The highlight of the whole film are those scenes in the Land of the Remembered, showing it as a happy bustling and festive place. The colors were so vibrant and rich. The multi-layered designs were so intricate and meticulous in their endemically Mexican-inspired details.

Another wonderful feature of this film is the musical score written by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. This musician has been awarded the Oscar two times before for "Babel" and "Brokeback Mountain." The soundtrack also employs the most unexpected pop songs, sung Mexican style, of course. Hearing a familiar song being sung makes me smile and even sing along. The sensitive singing voice of Diego Luna (as Manolo) makes songs as diverse as Radiohead's "Creep" to Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love" sound so good.

I believe this film had a lot of educational value in it for the young audience it targets. There are a lot of Latino values being tackled here about friendship and family, the status of women, the respect for the dead, etc., which are likewise universal as well, more often than not. It also introduces us, both kids and adults alike, to the vibrant Mexican culture, especially about their Day of the Dead.

The pace of the film was slow at first, but once you get into its groove, you will surely enjoy the eventful ride. My two sons with me, as well as the much younger kids in the theater with us, all seemed to enjoy the film very much as you hear a lot of gleeful laughter at the some of the shallower jokes. This was despite the rather macabre subject matter involving death and several grotesque-looking (albeit in a comical way) characters. It also had humorous moments that the adults would knowingly chuckle at.

Aside from Diego Luna, the line-up of voice actors surprisingly included Zoe Saldana (as Maria) and Channing Tatum (as Joaquin). I would not have guessed it by only listening because of their Latino accents of their characters. Ron Perlman and Christina Applegate are also familiar names on board. Some well-known Latino actors like Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo and Placido Domingo lend their voices for Manolo's dad and ancestors. The most unexpected name I saw on the list though was that of Ice Cube as the sunshiny fluffy character called the Candlemaker. You would definitely not think of gritty rapper Ice Cube when you see and hear the very cute Candlemaker.

Writer and director Jorge R. Gutierrez successfully expanded on his experience on Nickelodeon's frenetic Daytime Emmy award-winning animated series "El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera," which he also created. Here in "Book," he was able to proudly showcase his beloved Mexican roots on a much bigger platform. The name of acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro as one of the producers of this film also gives an additional assurance of excellence.

Overall, "The Book of Life" is a very unique animated feature film. The basic story is based on Mexican folklore and traditions, so the flamboyant animation style had the vivid colors and ethnic designs of Mexico. The different look and unfamiliar references may turn off some less adventurous viewers, but really they should not. This is one very educational and very entertaining film for all ages to learn from and enjoy. 8/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."