The Book of Life is gorgeous and imaginative. With endless textures and a vibrant palette, the movie's Day of the Dead imagery comes to life on the big screen in a way that Internet video clips don't really do justice.
Just like the Mexican holiday that inspired it, Jorge Gutierrez's first feature-length film is full of bright colors with a sincere sentimental streak underpinning the light-hearted proceedings. The movie introduces us to La Muerte and Xibalba, two mythical lords of the underworld who rule over the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten respectively. Unhappy with his lot, Xibalba makes a bet with La Muerte to trade places. They pick out two young friends, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), competing for one girl's affections, and pick sides. If the girl falls for the budding musician Manolo, La Muerte wins. If she falls for the military-minded Joaquin, Xibalba wins.
From there, La Muerte and Xibalba are largely sidelined as Manolo faces mythical odds to win Maria's (Zoe Saldana) heart. His adventure is full of fantastic turns that introduce a series of beautiful set pieces. When Manolo arrives at the Land of the Remembered, you want to be there with him because it just looks so amazing. The skulls, the colors, the characters — I don't just throw around the phrase "visual feast," but it is!
Fortunately, the movie isn't just pretty. It's emotional in a surprisingly mature way. It's the reverse of most kids' movies, which are often emotionally resonant only for their target audience while failing to connect with adults. This time it's adults, who've had time to work through complicated feelings about their families, who will find themselves moved. Just like with the actual Day of the Dead, kids will enjoy the colors, the costumes, and the music, oblivious to the ache of nostalgia their parents feel. Death, loss, and ancestral memory are woven into the seams of the movie, and more than once I found myself tearing up while watching it.
Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro both love their native Mexico with a passion and it shows. Few movies openly celebrate Mexico the way Book of Life does, albeit in a mythical, abstract way. The mark of authenticity shows not only in the visuals, but also in the movie's sense of humor (it's broad, but also a little dark) and especially its music, which ventures far beyond the obvious mariachi into folk, pop, and occasionally even flirts with Mexican goth. It's enough to make Pixar movies seem safe and sterile by comparison.