Right away, “The Book Of Life” is appealing to me on a purely visual level. Simply put, this is a film that is delightful to look at, pretty much start to finish. Using CG to create a tactile world and a style that feels like part puppet, part cartoon gives the characters an unusual quality.
It's kind of a lovely moment for family-audience movies right now. If you're in the right area this weekend, your options include “The Book Of Life,” “The Boxtrolls,” and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” all of which are excellent exercises in voice. It's true that Pixar and Dreamworks have house styles, that there is a thread that runs through the way their films look and feel that unites them. And it's hard not to get used to it. Familiarity sometimes hurts the reception to these films because we're used to seeing them get it right. It's still an incredible accomplishment any time you make a good animated film, a monumental task of artistry and collaboration, and we sometimes take for granted that big companies make it look easy.
What I like most about “Book Of Life” is the way it uses culture as a springboard into storytelling. The framing device makes it clear that this story is something that is being shared and preserved and passed down. That tradition is what the film celebrates, and Jorge R. Gutierrez makes joyous use of the iconography of the Day of the Dead and Mexico and his own childhood, and the result is this rich and beautiful kaleidoscope.
That's not to say the film is overly reverent. Gutierrez is a wise-ass, and there's a profound silliness to the movie. The performances by Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ron Perman, and more are all dialed in on that same sort of lunatic frequency. More than anything else, “Book Of Life” is vibrant, alive. I love that Gutierrez designed the film with his wife, Sandra Equihua. If anything, the film is perhaps too busy, too frantic to entertain and explain. There's enough narrative here for any three other movies. Just the set-up, handled through a device about a tour guide in a museum telling a story to a group of schoolchildren. She's trying to control them because of what a handful they are, so it's very Scheherezade.
The story she tells them involves the Day of the Dead, The Land of the Forgotten, the Land of the Remembered, a bet, bullfighting, guitar-playing, and a romantic triangle. There are some clever song choices as the cast expresses their emotions through eruption into occasional pop music selections. I love that this was created by Reel FX in Dallas, and it's not the work of some studio's A-team. I think this is a nice reminder that the tools are available for anyone, and it really comes down to how you use them. “The Book Of Life” isn't great. I think it's a narrative muddle at times. But it is such a beautiful theatrical experience, and the exuberance of the people involved shines through so clearly, that I think it's worth the trip to theater for any family. I would also say that in 3D, there's a feel to the film like you could almost reach into the screen and pose these remarkable figurines. It's a gorgeous world, and I can't wait to have this on Blu-ray so I can still-step through some of the sets and some of the set-pieces.
“The Book Of Life” may play by the rules when it comes to story, but it plays its own game when it comes to how it looks, and in the world of animated family films, that's what really counts.
“The Book Of Life” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.