Overview: A coming-of-age adventure following Manolo who battles with following his family’s expectations and writing his own story. 20th Century Fox; 2014; Rated PG; 95 minutes.
The Storytelling: The Book of Life features Manolo, an aspiring young singer who is also a natural bull-fighter in a long line of bull-fighters. In an effort to win the affection of María, Manolo travels through three worlds San Angel, the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten, each magical in their own way. During this journey of treacherous feats and tests of the heart, Manolo discovers what he truly fears and learns how to overcome it.
If there is to be a story to enliven the traditional line-up of fairy tales, The Book of Life provides a tale for the new generation: Fantastical worlds? Check. Devious villain? Check. Underdog protagonist? Check. Romantic interest? Double check. Most impressive is that Director Jorge Gutierrez has offered an adventure that finally incorporates a cultural backdrop outside of our own that still feels distinctly relatable. With his story set on Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), Gutierrez introduces younger audiences to a tradition more culturally rooted than Halloween that, although is most commonly associated with its Mexican celebration, can be found in many other countries as well. Gutierrez chooses to illustrate the characters as dolls; skeleton dolls and figurines are key decorative aspects during this time of celebration, highlighting Gutierrez’s commitment to his cultural artwork.
Life and Death: In movies, the challenge for actors is bringing life to their characters. In animation, the challenge is doubled because the animators must create the visual livelihood and the actors must translate emotion by voice alone. Diego Luna (Manolo), Zoe Saldana (María), and Channing Tatum (Joaquín) each provide a certain level of depth to their characters that is… about average. This mediocrity is a by-product of attempting to smash three stories of self-identity, all at once. María has the capacity to be a figure who truly represents a realistic image for young girls. Manolo and Jaoquín, although experiencing growth, both physically and in their soul, are on the verge of being thrown into the Land of the Forgotten, with their sub-par complexities. Unexpectedly, La Muerte, Xibalba, and the Candlemaker carry much of the vigor and spirit. Gutierrez’s personal approach of the deities representing life and death is original; it is a relationship intimately intertwined, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. As a contender against the major animation studios, The Book of Life has all the potential to carve its own way and offer something wholly new. But I could not help but notice moments in which the movie felt tied to the standard of those larger studios, afraid to break cleanly away into the fresh direction with which it experiments.
Final thoughts: Defying death and finding love while searching his heart for his self-identity, Manolo’s tale is a heartwarming if somewhat formulaic approach to a fairy tale.