The Book of Life is an exuberant, almost overwhelming riot of a movie that is a blast of fresh air in the increasingly crowded field of kids’ animated feature films. It delivers a carefully calibrated measure of excess, overwhelming audiences with its visual flair and energy by drawing on Mexican folk art traditions, especially those surrounding the Day of the Dead. However, the movie also keeps tremendous depth and genuine feeling in reserve to ensure it’s not just a triumph of style over substance. Admittedly, on some level, that’s exactly what it is, since the core story driving the movie is not hugely original, but I have no problem with style over substance as long as you bring a hell of a lot of style to the table.
The Book of Life has a hell of a lot of style.
Like The Arabian Nights, The Book of Life is about stories and the art of storytelling as much as it’s about a love triangle of 3 friends in the Mexican city of San Angel. Our Scheherazade is a sprite of a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate), who tells a quintet of detention kids a story about the sensitive musician and matador Manolo (Diego Luna), the heroic soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and their rivalry for the love of Maria (Zoe Saldana), who is as assertive and strong-willed as she is lovely. But their story is driven by the rivalry between two gods of the afterlife: the lovely La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the benign ruler of the Land of the Remembered; and the despicable Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the crafty, manipulative ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. On a Day of the Dead when Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria are children, La Muerte and Xibalba make a wager on which boy Maria will someday marry, with La Muerte favoring Manolo and Xibalba tipping the scales for Joaquin.
The Book of Life revels in stories, piling them atop each other, tossing them off in casual asides, borrowing them from other sources to revamp and polish them, and finally shaping them into a new whole that’s genuinely heartfelt. There’s a perpetual sense that the movie is about to topple over from an overabundance of plot, but the movie never falters, deftly interweaving its many narrative threads and even integrating the throwaway asides that underscore the idea that we’re only seeing a part of an immensely larger whole. This overstuffed mixtape sensibility also pervades the music (which includes the original score and a mixture of original songs and cover versions of slightly incongruous pop tunes) and the storytelling tropes (lifted from ancient mythology and modern movies and everything in between). The movie would be impressive simply for its willingness to layer that much complexity in a kids’ movie, but its real trick is how it can hold them all together as a whole.
In fact, I’d even argue that its slightly messy sprawl is integral to the movie’s appeal, being the cinematic equivalent of the hand-crafted flaws and imperfections in the wooden dolls that are used for its main characters. Those imperfections make it clear that you are seeing a deeply personalized product, not something mass-produced for mass consumption. The Book of Life is undoubtedly too much of all of the above, but it’s all but impossible not to get caught up in its abundant enthusiasm. That infectious sense of play pervading the movie also makes it easier to deliberately overlook its weaker elements (mostly its over-reliance on gratuitous poop jokes and the way that Maria still ends up feeling a bit too much like a trophy being fought over, despite being a thoroughly modern heroine in her attitude and her sensibilities in other respects).
The cast of the movie also does an excellent job in assisting the juggling act. Manolo and Joaquin are both endearingly flawed heroes, and it’s not hard to see why they would fall for the spirited Maria. Kate del Castillo’s performance is surely integral in making La Muerte such an approachable character despite her overtly skeletal appearance. She reminds me strongly of Neil Gaiman’s Death from The Sandman comic book series: a figure so warm and appealing that she takes the fear out of death. In contrast, Ron Perlman is having far too much fun as Xibalba, alternating between salacious charm and subtle menace. These main players are surrounded by a terrific array of supporting actors, ranging from mainstay on-camera talent like Hector Elizondo, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo to veteran voiceover actors like Carlos Alazraqui and Grey Delisle to an amusing guest turn by opera star Placido Domingo. The oddest turn is probably by Ice Cube, who appears quickly as the oddball Candlemaker. His thoroughly modern patter doesn’t fit at all, which is probably why he fits perfectly in the movie.
All parents know that kids like watching the same things over and over, so its fortunate that The Book of Life is a movie that definitely rewards repeated viewings. It’s way too hard to catch all the asides and throwaway references in the plot and the visual design on just one viewing. To paraphrase the helpful guide to the Land of the Remembered, don’t try to take it all in at once. I think the movie is best experienced first like falling into a swift river of warm water, letting it carry you away in its random currents and eddies, and then revisited afterwards paying more attention to the details. The Book of Life is a movie tailor-made for home video, given the incredible amount of detail packed into nearly every single frame of the film. Several of the key emotional moments (especially two scenes driven by the original songs “I Love You Too Much” and “The Apology Song,” at least one of which should have been recognized by the Academy this year) even seem to gain more potency on repeated viewings.
Fortunately for a movie that demands repeated viewings, the Blu-ray combo pack of The Book of Life is a superb package for home audiences. It goes without saying that high-definition is the way to go with this movie if possible, since the brighter color palette, increased resolution, and higher dynamic range are pushed to the limits. The English soundtrack gets a terrific DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that is absolutely flawless, presenting dialogue crisply and while reproducing music beautifully. It’s a shame that the Spanish language track doesn’t get the same treatment, but the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack has nothing to apologize for (and, for good measure, there’s also a 5.1 Dolby Digital French soundtrack, the point of which escapes me).
Anchoring the bonus features on the disc are a terrific commentary track by Jorge Gutierrez and a new animated short, “The Adventures of Chuy.” Definitely make time for the commentary track on one of the repeated viewings of the movie. Jorge Gutierrez is a charming narrator for his film, ensuring there’s no dead air by recounting production anecdotes, technical challenges, the real world inspirations for characters and events, and the many Easter Eggs tucked away in every frame. The short is a prequel of sorts to the piglet that becomes Maria’s trusted companion. It’s animated in a Flash/After Effects style and not CGI, but the designs are still unmistakable. There is a trio of “making of” shorts: one on the voiceover work, one that’s a general behind-the-scenes look, and one focusing on the music. All three are worthwhile, if somewhat lightweight and sometimes repeating the commentary track. Normally, I’m less impressed with static image galleries included with the bonus features, but for this disc, it’s worth it, since it’s a miniature art book for the movie. It’s a very nice touch that the digital copy (which is iTunes/iOS-compatible) also includes all these bonus features.
The Book of Life is similar to The Boxtrolls in resolutely refusing to play it safe, opting instead to happily push against what a kids’ film ought to be. It is a joyous fiesta of a movie on a marvelous Blu-ray release that deserves a spot in any serious animation fan’s collection.