Genre: Animation, Adventure
Directed by: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman
Having left us dazed, confused, and frankly disappointed with last year’s generic Pacific Rim, Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro settles into the producer’s chair for this vivacious half-term delight. Eschewing the creative constraints of traditional studio backing, del Toro has given animator-turned-director Jorge R. Gutierrez the opportunity to craft his own unique animated vision of Mexicano madness; one that pulsates with a natural energy and fiery personality.
Gutierrez may be a novice at the helm, but when guided by del Toro’s hand he proves himself to be an accomplished filmmaker who’s bursting with ideas. His story begins on the annual Day of the Dead festival, where opposing deities La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Ron Pearlman) of the Land of the Forgotten, stake ownership of their kingdoms on a bet involving Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who are both vying for the affections of their free-spirited childhood friend, Maria (Zoe Saldana). Soon the pressures of their upbringings begin to surface, and all three find themselves having to choose between fulfilling what’s expected of them and following their dreams.
It may have a narrative that’s rooted in convention and be marred by a storytelling device that momentarily slows the pace, but with so much wit and wonder crammed into The Book Of Life it’s hard to find the time to care. Gutierrez boldly focuses his tale on death and the afterlife, innovatively engaging with Mexican folk culture as Manolo finds himself transported at first to the Land of the Remembered and then to the Land of the Forgotten in his quest to conquer Maria’s heart.
The odd creative tangent does feel misjudged. For example a lot of effort is put in during the early stages to establish Maria as a confident and independent woman. A brave and welcome fixture that’s considerably weakened by a narrative that resolutely focuses on its male characters. However, for the most part this is a film that truly ignites when all of its different elements come together; the voice cast infuses the story with lively personalities, the dialogue is laced with humour, and the soundtrack splendidly instils chart-topping classics with the energetic tones of mariachi music.
Primarily propelling the film forward however, is Gutierrez’s extraordinary visual imagination. His character designs are gloriously childlike, with exaggerated facial features, broad cubist body structures, and lavish costume designs all bathed in a sumptuous colour palette that effortlessly evokes the scorching setting. The backdrops meanwhile are even more vibrant, with each realm characterized by its own distinguishing look. Whereas our mortal coil bakes under the glare of the sizzling Mexican sun, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten bask in distinctly ethereal glows. The Remembered pulses with life, combing a vast array of textures to form a hallucinogenic milieu, while the Land of the Forgotten is submerged in so many varying shades of grey that it practically reeks of death and decay.
Stamped across the film from beginning to end is del Toro’s seal of approval, which has been key in allowing Gutierrez to unlock his full potential. Free from the artistic restraints of the studios, the first-time director has revealed himself to be a rising talent with an astonishing eye. As cinematic calling cards go, The Book Of Life is a doozy.