The Book of Life, directed by Jorge Gutierrez, is about two friends and the woman they both love. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is the soldier who grew up in the shadow of his heroic father’s legacy, Manolo (Diego Luna) is the bullfighter who really just wants to be a musician, and Maria (Zoe Saldana) is the feisty and modern-minded young lady who captures both their hearts.
The Book of Life feels like a more light-hearted and more colourful (way more colourful) version of Tim Burton’s stories. The storyline strongly involves what ought to be macabre and sombre but turns it into something fun – in this case, as with The Corpse Bride, that something is the concept of death and the afterlife.
Behind the love story is the bet between La Muerte (“Death” in Spanish) and Xibalba (apparently the name of the underworld in Mayan mythology), which begins on the Day of the Dead. La Muerte rules the Land of the Remembered, a festive place that’s way more fun than real life, whilst Xibalba is in charge of the dreary Land of the Forgotten. La Muerte and Xibalba bet on the outcome of the love triangle, with their respective halls of the dead at stake.
Just like The Corpse Bride, death here is not presented as the ultimate end, and life after death is shown to be quite fun (unless no one alive still remembers you, in which case you get relegated to the Land of the Forgotten). La Muerte’s Land of the Remembered is a lively riot of colour and celebration. Sure, everyone there has a skeletal face with black eyes and glowing pupils but it doesn’t come off as particularly scary and the inhabitants seem to be having far more fun than anyone else.
Thematically The Book of Life is nothing new. But it’s really the art direction that really gives this movie … Well, life. The puppet-like character designs are an enjoyable change from the usual 3D-animated fare, and the Mexican design elements – particularly their sugar skull design motifs – provide a very distinctive visual look that is interesting as well as directly linked to the theme of death (as sugar skulls are associated with the Day of the Dead). It sounds gruesome, but it really doesn’t look it.
It’s an enjoyable romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You may expect to be amused (just don’t expect to be amazed).