Experienced animator Jorge R. Gutierrez teams up with fan-favourite producer Guillermo Del Toro for his directorial debut The Book of Life (2014), a visually dazzling but regrettably stale spin on the colourful Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead. Manola (Diego Luna), the sensitive son of a prized bullfighter, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), an adventurous risk-taker, are childhood best friends with one thing in common: their love for Maria (Zoe Saldana). As the boys grow older, they vie for Maria’s affection in different ways – one with soft songs of undying love, and the other with the point of a sword – hoping to emerge the victor.
They duke it out under the watchful eyes of La Muerta and Xibalba, two mythical entities who bet on the outcome and use their powers in an attempt to tip the scales in their own favour, leading to all manner of unexpected occurrences and revelations. If it were down to the visuals alone, then The Book of Life would be an out-and-out winner. Gutierrez and his skilled team of animators draw from years of Mexican folklore to present something utterly new on screen: characters and furnishings that award the film a lived-in look that never fails to charm. The voice work by the likes of Luna, Saldana and a host of Latino actors fit with the tradition aesthetic, but that is undone by the blandness of Tatum’s tones, and Ice Cube in a role similar to, but far from the quality of, Robin Williams’ in Aladdin (1992).
The problems extend, unfortunately, to the narrative itself, which is unnecessary cluttered, mechanical and commonplace. Rather than fleshing out the scenario out with interesting characters and unusual situations, screenwriters Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale instead opt for diversions, endless stories-within-stories and typical histrionics. The central story itself is bookended by a framing device in which the tale is unnecessarily recited to a handful of schoolkids by a museum curator. It’s disappointment for a film that packs hordes of vivacity and colour into its animation to be so humdrum and witless on the inside (most of the jokes are made up of slapstick and irritating pigs). The Book of Life could have been better – in fact, it could have been one of the most unique films of the year. Instead, it’s a watchable distraction for the eyes that sours itself by labouring to be as commercial as possible, right down to its unsophisticated and downright irritating soundtrack of Latino-infused Mumford & Sons covers.