The Book of Life begins in a museum where a group of kids are told the story of "Día de los Muertos," a Mexican holiday in which people remember the ones that passed away. The story begins in a town called San Angel, where three kids, Manolo, Maria and Joaquin, are best friends. Both Manolo and Joaquin are in love with Maria and when she's sent to a boarding school in Europe, both of them swear they will wait for her. Meanwhile, La Muerte, the ruler of the Land of the Remembered and her husband Xibalba, ruler of The Land of the Forgotten, make a bet as to which boy will marry Maria. La Muerte says it'll be Manolo, while Xibalba bets on Joaquin. If La Muerte wins, Xibalba would no longer bother the humans, but if Xibalba wins, he will become ruler of The Land of the Remembered. As the years go by, Manolo becomes a skilled bullfighter, like all his family before him, and Joaquin becomes the town's hero and protector. When Maria returns, both of them vie for her affections, but an unexpected event sends Manolo to The Land of the Remembered and he needs to find a way to return to Maria.
The thing that I appreciate the most about The Book of Life is that it tells a story about a Latin American holiday and it does it for a global audience. As a Latin American, there are not many animated films that do this and to see this film celebrating a holiday that its so well known here is simply refreshing. Director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro obviously love their heritage and that's palpable in every single frame of the film; they are able to transmit this to an international audience without losing any of the film's charm. While it by no means breaks new ground in the storytelling department, and plays out more or less like most of the mainstream animated films nowadays, it does flow nicely.
Many people are calling this film derivative and, to a certain point, it is. But what animated film (or film in general) can hand on heart be called completely original? I'm not very interested if the premise of the film is original or not, but in how it executes it, and The Book of Life's execution is very good. There are some hiccups here and there, but overall the film gets the job done. A particular highlight is that the film is unabashedly romantic and it embraces that romanticism without a hint of cynicism. Also, in most animated films, the role of the hopeless romantic usually goes to female characters, but in this case it's Manolo who embodies that trait and it's nice to see that gender-swap for a change. The film may not be groundbreaking but these little elements elevate the material much more.
Of course the main draw of the film is its visuals, and on that front the film succeeds, and succeeds big. Jorge Gutierrez said that he wanted the film to look like an "Art of" book and it does. From San Angel to The Land of the Forgotten, the film showcases splendid visuals and animation. Obviously, The Land of the Remembered is where most of the spectacle is and that sequence is the highlight of the movie. Character designs are also good, with Xibalba and La Muerte being particular standouts. The casting is great too, with much diversity; Diego Luna, Kate Del Castillo, Ron Perlman, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum give great performances and imbue their characters with distinctive traits.
In contrast to what my colleague Damien said in his great review, I liked the songs and thought they helped flesh out the character of Manolo more. Although, I have to agree with him that many times they didn't advance the plot - but I didn't mind that; Gustavo Santaolalla's score embraces the Mexican and Latin American roots, helps the film feel more authentic and accompanies the story nicely.
If there's one thing that I felt did not work well, it was the museum part. Just like Damien said, I think that whole part could have stayed in the editing room. The film would've worked better if they just showed the museum at the beginning and at the end (where there's a nice twist) but the constant voice-overs and scenes with the kids at the museum just detracted from the main story and the pacing suffered as a result.
The Book of Life does not offer any new or groundbreaking story, but with stunning animation, charming characters and catchy songs, it overcomes its storytelling problems and delivers an enjoyable, and a fun and heartfelt ride. Forget Free Birds, this is Reel FX's real debut.