While every other animated movie seems to be trying to make their graphics as lifelike as possible, “The Book of Life” goes out of its way to make its characters look like stylized playthings.
It’s a little jarring at first, but ultimately it serves as a storytelling tool for this tale seeped in legend and myth.
The story, as told to a bunch of rambunctious students on a tour of a Mexican history museum, is of the goddess of the Land of the Remembered (that is, where the souls of the people who are remembered by loved ones after death) and the god of the Land of the Forgotten (where the souls of those whom the living have forgotten are sent) make a wager on a trio of children they see playing in the graveyard.
The goddess, La Muerta (voiced by Kate del Castillo), bets the girl will marry the sensitive, musical boy, while Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) bets she will eventually choose the up-and-coming warrior. If La Muerta wins, Xibalba agrees to stop meddling in the affairs of men, but if she loses, Xibalba wins dominion over the Land of the Remembered.
So, the deities sit back and wait for the children to grow up.
A dozen or so years later, the sensitive boy, Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), has grown up to reluctantly carry on his family’s tradition of bull fighting, while Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) has become the hero of the town, and both are seeking the hand of the lovely and spunky Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana).
When Manolo seems to be getting the upper hand, though, Xibalba intervenes. Manolo is plunged into the underworld, where he meets his deceased mother (voiced by Ana de la Reguera) and a host of other family members (including the voices of Cheech Marin and opera singer Placido Domingo).
They help him seek the help of a third deity, the Candle Maker (voiced by Ice Cube), to try to help even the score. Meanwhile, a vicious bandit is bringing an army to attack the town, endangering not only the living but the dead whose memories they hold.
Frankly, I felt this movie took a while to get going. There was a lot to explain in the exposition; I get it, but the first half hour or so had me checking my watch. The characters, stylized as wooden figurines and, later, wooden figurines with traditional Day of the Dead painting, were also kind of hard to get used to.
Gradually, though, the storytelling technique started to add to the plot’s magic, rather than distracting from it. It helped to enhance the decidedly mythological properties of the story. The soundtrack is pretty cool, too — it features popular songs like Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait,” Phillip Phillips’ “Home” and Radiohead’s “Creep” put through a Mariachi Band or Spanish guitar filter.
Although it revolves almost entirely around dead or dying people, “The Book of Life” is light enough on scares for even young audiences, making it a good Halloween- and Day of the Dead-themed flick for kids. And above all, “The Book of Life” is a love story, just about as sweet as they come.
Time: 95 minutes