Review by Bob Ignizio
Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge Guitierrez, THE BOOK OF LIFE derives its visual style from Mexican “Day of the Dead” folk art, and it looks beautiful. On top of that, there's a pretty decent story, one that takes the tired old love triangle formula and actually does something a little bit different with it.
The three characters at the center of the plot are childhood friends Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). It's obvious even when the trio are kids that Manolo and Joaquin both have a crush on Maria, something that does not go unnoticed by underworld rivals Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, whom make a wager on which of the boys will eventually win Maria's heart. Xibalba picks the more physical and extroverted Joaquin, while La Muerte puts her faith in sensitive musician Manolo.
Neither entity is supposed to interfere, but as in past wagers between the two Xiabalba is not above cheating to win. To insure that his man gets the girl, he bestows on him a medal that makes the wearer virtually indestructible, enabling Joaquin to become a great hero with little personal risk. When Maria proves to be more impressed by Manolo's heartfelt singing and love of animals than with Joaquin's prowess in battle, Xiabalba goes even further, setting a trap that seems certain to eliminate Manolo from the contest permanently.
This is a more compelling and complex work than your usual family fare, but never to the point that it's over the heads of its target audience of grade schoolers. And despite all the skulls and talk of the dead returning to visit, this isn't a particularly scary film. Like the Mexican holiday on which much of its story takes place, this is more about honoring and remembering those who have passed on than being afraid of them.
In addition to merely telling its story, the film also deals with issues of animal cruelty (bull fighting plays a major role in the plot) and female empowerment (Maria is no damsel in distress, and fights alongside the boys when their town is threatened). Personally I'm on board with both messages, but the way they're inserted into the film can feel a bit heavy handed at times. It's also unfortunate that the filmmakers decided to go the SHREK route with the soundtrack, using mostly cover versions of modern pop songs. Some work, but others feel too anachronistic. Speaking of which, casting Ice Cube to do the voice of The Candle Maker (a sort of God figure) in full hip hop lingo just feels out of place, a cheap bid to give the movie some unnecessary hipness.