The Book of Life bears more than a passing resemblance to Pixar’s Coco, out this week. Obviously, both are based around the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, and involve protagonists going on a journey through the afterlife. Both movies also give their hero a passion for music that is forbidden by their family, and both feature voice work by one of the stars of Y Tu Mamá También. But the similarities surely cannot go much further, because The Book of Life is a pretty unique little film.
For a start, the animation is both gorgeous and unconventional. The creativity involved is most immediately obvious in the character design. For most of the story, characters are portrayed as wooden dolls, complete with blocky limbs, visible joins, and funny proportions. If this is partly a way of avoiding hard-to-animate human figures, it never feels cheap, as closeups reveal intricate details and even wood grain. This idiosyncratic approach is a refreshing break from the now-default Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks-style animated humans.
Elsewhere, the look of the film captures a mix of storybook, carnival and dreamscape. Since the plot jumps between no less than four distinct realms (plus a few in-between spaces and 2D sequences), there is a stunning amount of variety on display. The film’s conception of the afterlife is especially breathtaking, split into the eye-poppingly colourful Land of the Remembered and the stark, monochrome Land of the Forgotten.
The Book of Life’s version of the underworld is a hodgepodge of Mexican traditions and pure invention – fun seems to have been the guiding principle of its creation. Two deities named Xibalba and La Muerte (La Catrina in the Spanish dub) roughly represent its “dark” and “light” sides, though both are susceptible to wagers and are perpetually in the midst of a centuries-long lovers’ quarrel. This gonzo approach to mythology lets the film play fast and loose with the particulars and focus on getting its characters into some spectacular scenarios.
Though most of the cast are primarily live-action stars, they transition to voice work well. Diego Luna brings boyish charm with a touch of melancholy to hero Manolo. The sincerity he radiates is a world away from tough Han Solo type Cassian Andor. Zoe Saldana has fun as María, delightfully resistant to the attempted love-triangle shenanigans. Filling out the cast are solid pros like Héctor Elizondo and Ron Perlman, as well as some eclectic cameos: Cheech Marin, legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, and Danny “Machete” Trejo squealing over “all-you-can-eat churrrrooos!”
But let’s talk about the most important person here: Hollywood’s brightest star, Channing Tatum. As Joaquín, the clueless hypotenuse of the aforementioned love triangle, Tatum is perfectly cast. He channels the same dumb-bro energy showcased in the Jump Street films to great comic effect, as Joaquín tries to flex his way into María’s affections. His real trick, though, is making Joaquín a sympathetic meathead; you love the guy even as he’s shouting his own name as a battle cry, or bragging about his medals:
“Well I got this one for delivering a baby with one hand while arm-wrestling a bear with the other – you know, that’s nothing […] and then I also saved a little puppy one time that had a little thorn in his paw, and this medal is for having the most medals…”
It’s notable that The Book of Life doesn’t make Joaquín the typical villainous suitor, to be defeated by Manolo in order to win the hand of María. Instead, the triangle is resolved wordlessly and the three join forces in a climactic battle against bandit king Chakal. Similarly, Xibalba remains somewhat sympathetic despite being more obviously villainous. He kills Manolo and his actions lead Chakal to invade the town, but once he is caught cheating he agrees to a new wager, loses fairly, and supports a resurrected Manolo in the final battle.
The fact that neither potential villain is especially evil may lower the stakes (Chakal is such a cardboard threat that he barely registers), but this is arguably part of the film’s charm. Death is not the end, the Land of the Remembered is one big carnival, and the gods of death are affable rogues. The film can be poignant, as when Manolo’s father dies bravely fighting Chakal. But for the most part it embodies the good humour of a Day of the Dead celebration – for instance, Manolo’s grandmother suddenly pops up in the afterlife alongside her son and grandson, grouchily citing “cholesterol”.
The film’s blend of beauty, eclectic humour, and fundamental good-naturedness shines through in its soundtrack, too. Because Manolo longs to be a musician instead of a bullfighter, he expresses himself through song more than once, including covers of Mumford & Sons’ ‘I Will Wait’ and Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Despite the initial smack of Dreamworks-ish anachronism, these Latin versions are surprisingly sweet. Elsewhere, we find a grab-bag of musical fun, from snippets of Rod Stewart and Biz Markie played by a shambolic mariachi band, to traditional tune ‘Cielito Lindo’ sung as opera by Plácido Domingo.
The Book of Life also features two original compositions, sung with tremendous heart by Diego Luna on both the English and Spanish dubs. The first is a lovely little warbler called ‘I Love You Too Much’, sung early on in an attempt to woo María. The second, ‘The Apology Song‘, gets straight to the heart of the film; Manolo sings it in the underworld to the spirit of every bull his family of bullfighters has ever killed. It exemplifies the type of emotional beats on which director Gutierrez has built this wonderfully positive film about death: instead of violent victories or shocking revelations, the big moments are all about reconciliation and reunion.
So, even if you’re seeing Coco this week (word is it’s very good!), consider checking out The Book of Life for a Day of the Dead-themed double-bill. It’s truly an underseen gem, with stunning visuals, a dynamite cast, and even a producer credit for man-of-the-hour Guillermo del Toro. If you’ve already seen it, I hope you’d agree that this joyous take on life and death is endlessly rewatchable. Truly, the only bad thing you can say about it is that Joaquín doesn’t get a song-and-dance number.