You’d think, given the base material, that Book of Life would be more adult-leaning than last night’s, children’s book-based, The Boxtrolls. Absent the artistic merit of the piece, you’d be wrong.
Admittedly, the subject doesn’t seem like a children’s tale on the surface; the Mexican Day of the Dead isn’t typical fare for youngsters north of the border. But the issue is that it is kept very much at the surface, with few real dangers. It is also loaded with frenetic movement. In fact, so frenetic that a lot of the beautiful work in the piece is lost. I think the result is due to the fact that Gutiérrez came out from the animation room to direct his freshman feature and, with TV animation veteran Langdale, wrote this story. The TV influence is strong with this film from both men.
As a movie it is serviceable with some good voice talent and fun moments. I give the film a lot of credit for the strength of the female lead, Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy). The men, Tatum (Foxcatcher) and Luna (Elysium) are also nicely “modern” in their plot lines, despite the period setting. But I was a bit confused by the mix of accents, some very heavy and some very white-man American. Given the strong Latin leaning of the piece, I’d have expected the choices to be consistent. Overall the voice talent works… and there are some nice surprises in the cast as well.
On the art side, basing the characters and world on wooden Mexican puppets gives this movie a beautiful and visually unique look. Wrapped as a presentational tale told to an audience in the film, that choice works well. I can’t wait to rewatch the movie in 3D as the design and framing were clearly selected to take advantage of that technology. The story does also manage to surprise at times, leveraging structures outside the typical American genres. Mining the Day of the Dead for the mythic underpinnings of the story truly provided a new view of the world as compared to main stream. But the focus of the tale is decidedly for younger audiences, which is a shame. The appeal of this film could have been much broader.
Overall, this is a welcome and unique addition to the animation shelves. I hope that the creative power behind the film, which included Del Toro (Pacific Rim), continue to produce material… hopefully material with a bit more bite and meat on the bones when they try again.