Dir: Jorge R Gutierrez. US. 2014. 95mins
Mexican Day of the Dead folklore provides the colourful backdrop for The Book Of Life, a 3D animated fantasy-adventure with wildly imaginative visuals but an overstuffed story that never quite develops the requisite emotional pull. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, this independently made, studio-distributed CG outing looks set to end up as an international-skewing mid-level performer in the often-lucrative family animation game.
The characters have an interesting range of heavily stylised looks, but they lack the expressive subtlety that might have given the story more emotional force.
Giving the film a wide US release on October 17 – in the run-up to both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (November 1-2) itself – worldwide distributor Fox might benefit from the dearth of animated family offering’s this summer (though it will also have to cope with impending competition from Disney’s Big Hero 6). Internationally, the best results are likely to come in animation-loving Latin America, where the film was unveiled last week at the special screening at the Rio Film Festival.
After a prologue clearly intended to give contemporary kids a way into the story, Mexican director and co-writer Jorge Gutierrez (best known up to now as creator of Nickelodeon series El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera) jumps into the mythological world of La Muerta (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), husband-and-wife rulers of, respectively, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten.
Looking down on the land of the living, the estranged gods make a wager on the outcome of a love triangle involving three friends from what looks like a nineteenth century Mexican town: Manolo (Diego Luna), a sensitive balladeer from a long line of bullfighters, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a born but not entirely genuine warrior, and Maria (Zoe Saldana), a strong-willed young woman who kicks against the conventions of her time.
The story gets complicated – perhaps too complicated to hold the interest of kids – as Manolo journeys to the Land of the Remembered to seek help from his ancestors in winning Maria’s love. And the film throws other elements into the mix as well, among them a vague self-discovery theme, an appeal against bullfighting and a whole line-up of comic relief characters (including one voiced by rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube).
The computer animation by Texas company Reel FX (whose first feature was last year’s Free Birds) is well up to major studio standards. The characters have an interesting range of heavily stylised looks, but they lack the expressive subtlety that might have given the story more emotional force.
The action is punctuated by a handful of pleasant though not particularly memorable songs, most of them nicely performed by Luna – some are traditional, some are original, some are pop and rock covers given a Latin flavour.
Production companies: Reel FX, 20th Century Fox Animation
International distribution: 20th Century Fox
Producers: Guillermo Del Toro, Brad Booker, Aaron D Berger, Carina Schulze
Executive producers: Cary Granat, Chuck Pell, Aron Warner
Screenplay: Jorge R Gutierrez, Doug Langdale
Editors: Ahren Shaw, Stephen Liu
Production designer: Simon Vladimir Varela
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Main cast: (voices) Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate Del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Diego Luna, Ron Perlman, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum