'Life' Look Is a Dead-On Delight

By Berkshire, Geoff | Variety, October 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Life' Look Is a Dead-On Delight


Berkshire, Geoff, Variety


'Life' Look Is a Dead-on Delight

The Book of Life

Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez

Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum

The visuals outshine the story in "The Book of Life," a lively animated tale mixing 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 against the backdrop of Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday. And yet the characters are so warmly handcrafted that it hardly matters what they're saying (or occasionally singing). Opening domestically three weeks after 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 (Christina Applegate) to a group of rebellious school kids on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead. While that device initially seems unnecessarily distancing, it also reinforces the mythic quality of what we're watching, and 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 Thtum) 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 Joaquin has been selected by the kindly La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules over the joyful Land of the Remembered. Manly Manolo is the choice of her devious husband Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who oversees the miserable Land of the Forgotten. A victory for Team Joaquin means Xibalba can no longer meddle in the lives of humans; a victory for Team Manolo will banish La Muerte to the Forgotten realm and release Xibalba to lord over the Remembered. No fair guessing in advance who wins.

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. …

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