A children’s movie that has Guillermo del Toro’s (the man behind creepy classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth) name attached to it might not seem like the best idea to a lot of parents out there, but The Book of Life’s marketing team clearly think pushing this point is the best way to go. This is perhaps fitting, as del Toro’s influence can be seen spreading it’s claws throughout Jorge R. Gutierrez’s big screen directorial debut. Based around the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the film focuses a wager between two opposing deities, the bright and beautiful La Muerte played by Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman’s demonic Xibalba. The two place bets on who will marry the feisty beauty Maria, the sweet, creative Manolo or the strong and heroic Joaquin; of course nothing is quite so simple, and Xibalba’s tricks result in the death of Manolo, who must then journey through the afterlife to reunite with his true love and save his town.
On the surface the film doesn’t sound particularly complex. It appears at first to be a basic good guy fights bad guy and gets the girl story, but fortunately it expands much further beyond that. This is a film that has faith in its young audience and refuses to be so black and white. Manolo and Joaquin are fast friends throughout the movie, often supporting each other in their endeavours, despite their shared desire for Maria. Maria herself is never so typical either, refusing to be a prize for the two boys and having her own agency as a character rather than just an object. The film is refreshing in the way it breaks a lot of character conventions, with even Xibalba not being entirely evil and having understandable motivations for his actions. Every major character is likable in their own way and they all have their own flaws; they’re a lot more human than characters in some other movies, contrary to the film’s art style.
Each of the movie’s characters is presented as a puppet-like toy, as the story is told to a group of present day children. The film runs with its art style phenomenally well, with each location being beautiful and varied, from the dark and desolate Land of the Forgotten to the exacting and colourful Land of the Remembered. Each character looks expertly crafted, and stands out as an individual. The designs for the otherworldly characters are particularly interesting. Any viewer with a heart will be kept staring, mouths open wide, throughout the entire duration.
The film does have its problems though. Some of the casting is questionable, such as Channing Tatum as Joaquin or Ice Cube as the Candle Maker; whilst they fit their roles nicely, they don’t even attempt a Mexican accent which obviously clashes with the rest of the cast. The other big issue is the number of popular culture references throughout the film, mostly in terms of the music; characters singing Radiohead’s “Creep” only served to make light of one of the film’s sadder scenes.
All in all though, this is a great kid’s movie. Its appearance makes it an excellent spectacle and its cast of very human characters make the messages it carries all the more impactful and easy to understand. The directions the film takes are also a breath of fresh air thanks to its Mexican origins; a creative and fun family movie that doesn’t insult it’s viewers.
You can watch this film and many like it at the macrobert centre.