Happy Halloween, everyone! Well, considering it’s that time of year again when everyone likes to break out nostalgic annual classics, and turn their attention to new yearly offerings, a few days ago, I lent my attention to The Book of Life (You didn’t think I’d see something torturous like Annabelle or Quija, did you?), the new animated feature from Reel FX Animation Studios. That very name may leave a sour aftertaste to many a viewer, considering that they were behind last year’s critical failure Free Birds (which I have actively avoided). However, with a different creative team behind it, including Guillermo del Toro as a producer, The Book of Life is a generally fantastic film, and one of the year’s most dazzling treats.
Del Toro’s influence is evident from head to toe in this film, with both the writing and direction from Jorge Gutierrez shining with surprising originality and superb execution. The characters in this film are plentiful, and enchanting. At the core of the story is the playful rivalry between best friends Manolo and Joaquin (voiced by Diego Luna and Channing Tatum respectively), and the two of them vying for the affections of Maria (voiced by the commanding, yet earnest Zoe Saldana). This friendship between the two is especially genuine as it wisely chooses not to demonize either of them for their intentions, but shows them for the lovable goofballs that they are. They fight not with resentment, but like two children playfully bickering with each other, and this leads to some great laughs.
The film thankfully avoids tired clichés and tropes that would have only padded the film unnecessarily, and with that, the film provides a poignant examination of coming to grips with one’s true manhood, and eventual calling in life. The film has numerous memorable and funny characters, but by far the most scene-stealing one is Xibalba, a deceptive angel of death voiced with sinister delight by Ron Perlman. Xibalba plays a lot like a more level headed and conniving version of Hades from Disney’s Hercules, but the film thankfully keeps in mind that he isn’t a straight up villain, but more of an old soul tired with a thankless position that leaves him craving for acknowledgment. His character frequently engages in wagers with his wife, La Muerte, which paints them as a bored couple trying to spice up their lives, and leads to some priceless banter.
The film surprisingly takes itself quite seriously, but never enough that it loses its sense of fun. It’s honestly the type of story that would feel right at home in a Miyazaki film. However, scenes featuring school children on a tour of a museum (which acts as a framing device for the main story) often break the mood of the film for no good reason, leaving us with groaners for jokes, and the occasional poop gag in the film feels too cheap in contrast to the typically well timed comedy present through the rest of the film.
In spite of this, the film is still constantly entertaining, and if for no other reason, it’s worth watching solely for its technical prowess. The film looks absolutely beautiful, with an incredible puppetry attention to detail, and captures the Latin spirit of the Day of the Dead with exquisite results. This is nothing to say of the film’s flavorful music as well, which includes a beautiful score by Gustavo Santaolalla, and a couple fantastic new songs co-written by Santaolalla and Paul Williams. In spite of what drawbacks it may have, I generally loved The Book of Life as much as I would a top-tier Pixar film, and while it may not be quite as good as something like How to Train Your Dragon 2, it should be more than enough to convince anyone that Reel FX can easily stand toe to toe with the other animation juggernauts.
**** / *****