Many were turned off by Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. Scenes of talking skeletons, severed limbs, and disembodied heads came off as macabre and morbid to some who couldn’t get on board. Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life has all of the same content, yet feels entirely different and wholly alive (no pun intended), simultaneously solving one of the shortcomings of its predecessor by adding one simple thing: colours.
The Book of Life is filled with death. Almost every main character shuffles the mortal coil at one point or another in the movie. (If you think this is a spoiler, you clearly haven’t seen the ubiquitous trailers or commercials.) Yet, as anyone familiar with Día de los Muertos knows, death does not necessarily mean the end.
The movie’s story (within a story told by a museum tour guide to initially uninterested schoolchildren) centers on three children: the destined-to-be-a-lover Manolo (Diego Luna), the destined-to-be-a-fighter Joaquín (Channing Tatum), and the destined-to-be-torn-between-the-two María (Zoë Saldana).
La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (an excellent Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, place a flirtatious wager over whom María will ultimately marry. La Muerte believes in the power of love and supports Manolo. Xibalba chooses the heroic Joaquín, and isn’t above stacking the deck in his favour.
The ensuing tale of Manolo, Joaquín, and María unfolds predictably, with the movie not even trying to hide which of the two friends will win out. The story is by far the weakest element of the movie, with stock characters aplenty and plot elements already used in everything from Dante’s Inferno to Disney’s Hercules. Of course, it’s not The Book of Life’s fault that its core story is a familiar one, but the screenplay doesn’t do enough to overcome the problem.
That said, its ace card is still a hell of a good one. The Book of Life is one of the most gorgeous animated movies in at least a few years, and one of the most visually creative to come out of this continent in the last decade. The screen is bursting with vivid colour, but not in the flavourless way of the Rio movies. There’s real character to the design of The Book of Life’s world and its inhabitants.
The characters run the gamut appearance-wise, with physical characteristics that subtly recall The Incredibles, Aladdin, and The Road to El Dorado. Many of the more comical foils looks like asymmetrical rejects from a Wallace & Gromit movie, in the best way. Not all of the voices properly suit the quirkily built bodies — Tatum, for all his effort, never quite gels with the character of Joaquín — but most fit them with an unnatural effortlessness.
Numerous movies have tried to follow in the footsteps of The Nightmare Before Christmas, from Coraline to Corpse Bride, but they all had the same monochromatic, washed-out look that kept them from leaping off of the screen like so many animated classics that continue to bedazzle our memories. The Book of Life is a true successor to the crown. Imagine a movie with The Nightmare Before Christmas’ content and design but with The LEGO Movie’s colour palette and imagination, and you’re halfway there.