Screened Out – The Book of Life

By : Stephen Miller
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Voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Christina Applegate, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman

The Book of Life is a colorful, vibrant celebration of Mexican culture – eye popping and full of frenetic energy. When other studios seem to make films primarily to peddle plastic merchandise (I’m talking to you, Disney), The Book of Life sells us civilization and anthropology, which is much more fascinating. Sure, the story is elementary, and the animators take a seductively simple approach. However, the textures, the energy, and the heart make this Day of the Dead cartoon a lively visit to the cinema.

It’s based on a folk tale – one with the Mexican spirit of remembrance, La Muerta (del Castillo), in her constant love/hate relationship with dark, devilish Xibaba (Perlman). They place a wager on three youths – the fiery beauty (Saldana), and her two beaus (Luna and Tatum). The deities wager who will win Saldana’s heart. Tatum plans to become a brave hero. Luna wants to be a troubadour, but his family urges him to follow tradition and become a matador.

Already, this legend is ripe with the common Mexican lore. Of course, mischievous Xibaba is going to stack the deck, bringing in death and destruction, to win his bet. Of course, the young singer will have to stand up for himself against his family and face the afterworld in his epic struggle for the heart of his true love.

Day of the Dead iconography fills the screen.

Day of the Dead iconography fills the screen.

Life and death permeate – that particular mix of skeletons and gallows humor that marks the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.

What makes The Book of Life so dynamic is how it is rendered. The story is told with character who start as puppets. Their faces, shoulders, and hands are all rough-hewn planes, the wood grain always showing. As the tale takes on energy and urgency, the characters become more flexible. This is a brilliant way to cut down on detailed, expensive computer animation like blushing skin, rippling water, and moving hair. It also allows the animators to fill the screen with color and iconography – little skulls and artistic curlicues abound.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Perhaps the “bookends” that frame the story are less effective – the children who witness this tale are typical Nickelodeon brats. The movie also uses pre-existing music, which may make this tale easier to understand, but it also cuts corners on creativity.

Guillermo del Toro produced The Book of Life; he’s been very committed to bringing Mexican culture to the world. Television artists wrote and directed this, which – after you see the movie – also comes as no surprise. It’s not too difficult to spot where costs were trimmed. Still, The Book of Life is a wonderful observance of Day of the Dead and the spirited people who celebrate it.

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