Mexican producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez decided to focus on a holiday that gets much less attention than Halloween does in the United States during this time of year. His musical animated feature “The Book of Life,” released Friday, takes place on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday in which families pray for their deceased loved ones and leave offerings of food and presents. The visual art of the movie, full of flamboyant colors and intricate patterns, reflects the style of the traditional candy skulls prepared on that day. Its aesthetic recalls that of another spooky seasonal staple, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but the movie fails to provide a similarly creative and compelling plot.
The film centers on a love triangle between three childhood friends: Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), who wishes only to make music despite familial pressure to fight bulls, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a military hero and town heartthrob, and Maria (Zoe Saldana), the feisty governor’s daughter. While the arrival of bandits threatens their small town, Manolo also struggles to break a curse imposed by the spirit lord Xibalba and make his way through two separate spheres of the afterlife.
Xibalba kills him in an attempt to prevent him from courting Maria, and the most engrossing scenes take place as Manolo navigates the spirit world in order to come back to life. As he travels through the Land of the Remembered and into the Land of the Forgotten, the viewer follows Manolo through a visually stunning adaptation of Mexican mythology. He meets the Candle Maker, a benign deity playfully voiced by Ice Cube — yes, Ice Cube — and reconnects with his ancestors. We meet generations of Sanchez bullfighters, and during these exchanges, the humor finally begins to pick up. The film includes some interesting mythological references, particularly in the character of La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba’s benevolent counterpart, who resembles the Aztec deity Mictecacihuatl. Her appearance in the film is appropriate given the goddess’ significance in the Day of the Dead tradition.
“The Book of Life” is a charming, predictable, feel-good movie, and the mariachi-style covers of pop songs make for a fun and enjoyable watch. Manolo’s covers span genres and decades with recognizable hits such as “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” In one particularly surreal moment, he laments his status as the social pariah of his puebla by singing “Creep” by Radiohead. Too few of the songs, though, correspond with the Latino flavor of the film and celebrate its roots in Mexican folklore. The occasional moments when the film does pay tribute to Mexican artists are particularly gratifying, though, and Placido Domingo’s rendition of “Cielito Lindo” was a playful and impressive vocal achievement.
The humor is tailored to a family-friendly audience, and while some of the jokes are legitimately funny, many fall flat. At the film’s conclusion, the Candle Maker notes in one particularly painful moment of self-awareness, “Today was a good day.” Its cheesy humor, vaguely nauseating “follow your dreams” credo and one-dimensional cast of characters combine to create a palatable but ultimately unsatisfying experience for the viewer.
Perhaps a more interesting intellectual exercise would explore the trajectory of Ice Cube’s career and the circumstances that allowed a man who entered the public consciousness with proclamations such as “Fuck the police / Comin’ straight from the underground” to voice act for animated musical children’s features. The filmmakers’ reference to Ice Cube’s rap career, while a fun private joke for older members of the audience, is also deeply unsettling when viewed in the context of the proceeding line “didn’t even have to use my AK.” Does the Candle Maker have to use his AK?
Overall, the film is disappointing because it fails to capitalize on the many creative opportunities afforded to a children’s story based on Mexican folklore. But the ostentatious artwork and the cast of computer-generated marionettes makes for a visually stimulating hour and a half.
“The Book of Life” is playing at UA Berkeley 7.