A stunning display of visuals is let down by a muddled and sometimes confusing storyline.
A little background on Mexican folklore is handy here. The afterlife is split into two: those who are remembered on the Day of the Dead (The Book of Life’s original title was more in keeping with the movie but was understandably changed) and those who aren’t, who are banished to a hell called the Land of Forgotten.
In the sleepy village of San Angel on the Day of the Dead, two love rivals – the hero with the heroic moustache Joaquin (Tatum) and the guitar-strumming bullfighter Manolo (Luna) – declare their love for the Maria (Saldana). Observing the burgeoning romance from the afterlife, the jealous lord of the Land of the Forgotten Xibalba (Perlman) makes a wager with La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the benevolent ruler of the Land of the Remembered, that the manly Joaquin will triumph in the quest for Maria’s hand and if he’s right La Muerte must switch places with him. If Manolo triumphs he promises never again to muddle in the affairs of men.
Doused with an array of eye-catching colours and characters that look like old-fashioned wooden block toys, The Book of Life certainly holds the attention. Despite being a kids’ movie it is quite obsessed with the macabre, giving The Nightmare Before Christmas a run for its money, but the story remains light-hearted throughout; the Manolo/Joaquin rivalry is fun but it doesn’t chase gags like Pixar or DreamWorks. Its only pop culture references are the mariachi covers of Mumford & Sons and Radiohead.
In Joaquin and Manolo we have the usual don’t-heed-dad/strike-out-on-your-own arc but Saldana’s Maria is a puzzlement. At first it looks like the writers set out to deconstruct the romantic interest role but it’s all lip service: Maria isn’t here just to ‘make men happy’ but she’s never more than a goal for the male characters; her impossible waistline and Bratz doll eyes further illustrate this.
The story can lose its thread too, possibly confusing its young audience. First it’s the bet and the three-way romance, which is fine, but throw in bandit advancing on San Angel, a trip into the afterlife where a series of quests must be completed to return to the living, and the occasional flashback to a museum trip where a guide regales this very tale to a class of enraptured students and things can get lost. By the time Ice Cube’s candle maker turns up all bets are off.
But maybe kids are well able for meandering stories that get a little spooky.