The Book of Life, produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and directed by Jorge Gutierrez, is the 3D animated adventure that tells the story of Manolo Sanchez (voiced by Diego Luna) and his desire to be the man he wants to. The tale of Manolo’s journey is narrated by a present day museum guide tasked with giving four unruly children some education as part of their detention punishment. She easily captures the children’s interest with the folklore story of Manolo and his childhood friends Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) who, unbeknownst to them, become part of a bet made between La Muerta and Xibalba, two spirits of the dead. When we meet the trio, they are young children busy playing games instead of paying homage to their relatives who have passed away despite it being Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Both boys have a crush on Maria and seem to always be in (friendly) competition for her affections. Maria is portrayed as a strong willed, dare I say feminist, who does not want to be thought of as a prize to be won. While she cares for both of her friends, it is clear that Manolo and Maria have a special bond. When the spirits of the dead witness this love triangle, they make a wager. See, Xibalba wants to be in control of the Land of the Remembered but it is currently helmed by La Muerta. The two each chose one boy, and whichever boy wins the hand of Maria will then oversee the Land of the Remembered. A strange bet, especially considering the age of the players, but a bet nonetheless. However, Maria’s father does not like the way she behaves when she is with the boys (so unladylike!) so he sends her to Spain where she will be taught the ways of being a “lady”… by nuns.
Both boys are saddened but their attention is quickly diverted when they are required to begin training for their “predetermined” family roles. Manolo’s training involves becoming a bullfighter like almost everyone in his family, while Joaquin follows in the footsteps of his father, a soldier type hero the town depends on for protection. Unlike Joaquin, Manolo does not want the job he has been given, he would rather be a musician. Unfortunately, his father will not allow it, often preventing him from playing the guitar or meeting up with his fellow musician friends.
When Maria returns from Spain, the town is all aflutter and both Manolo and Joaquin quickly vie for her hand in marriage. Again, Maria becomes an object to be won. Maria’s father is rooting for her to choose Joaquin while no one but Manolo, and maybe Manolo’s father, are rooting for Maria to choose Manolo. Without giving too much away, Maria chooses Joaquin in order to get him to stay and protect the town from any potential villains while Manolo enters the The Land of the Remembered in order to find a way to woo Maria away from Joaquin.
Visually, the Book of Life is stunning, especially when we enter the Land of the Remembered on the Day of the Dead. The animation is colourful and lively in a way that other animated films have not been able to capture. The fact that it takes place in Mexico heightens the opulence factor, a culture not known to shy away from bright and lively colours. However, other than the dazzling animation, the film’s plot is stale. For instance, both Manolo and Joaquin are regurgitations of other characters from Disney or Pixar films. That is, there is nothing novel about them and neither deserve Maria’s hand, she could definitely do better. In addition, there is this overarching theme of true love conquering all. Okay, sure, but how about a story where “true love” is not the only factor that drives the main character’s actions? The film tries really hard to indicate that Maria is an independent woman which is great, strong females are necessary, but she was only thought of as independent because she read books, studied fencing and learned kung-fu. Is this the only way we can demonstrate a woman’s independence or ownership over her own personhood? Sigh.
The Book of Life opens nationwide October 17th.