When Guillermo Del Toro announced that he was producing an animated movie, peppered with Latino flavor, it seemed too good to be true. Sadly, it did turn out to be too good to be true. The Book of Life was a good enough movie, but there was a little too much wrong with it to be the animated masterpiece that Del Toro could have produced.
Written and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, Book of Life takes place on the Mexican Day of the Dead and focuses on three young friends who deem themselves the Three Amigos. Seeing as how this is a Del Toro movie, a lot of myth goes into the story, and that is the true lure of this tale. Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the ruler of the Land of Remembered, make a bet. The bet involves the three children and which of the two boys that the girl will choose to marry when they grow up.
Xibalba never plays fair and gives one of the boys, the athletic Joaquin (Channing Tatum) an amulet that basically makes him immortal and invincible. When Maria (Zoe Saldana) gets in trouble one too many times, her father sends her away to live with the nuns and the three kids, with Manolo (Diego Luna) as the third, move on with their lives.
Cut to the present day and Manolo is having trouble living up to his father’s expectations of being a bullfighter. He really wants to be a musician, which his father finds humiliating. Meanwhile, Joaquin has used his invincibility to great use and became a warrior and hero, protecting his city and country from banditos. When Maria returns home as a beautiful young woman, the battle for her heart begins.
The Book of Life takes a turn for the dark when Xibalba cheats once again. He sees that he is about to lose his bet and makes Manolo believe that a snake bite killed Maria. He offers Manolo the chance to go to the Land of the Remembered to save her, and has the snake bite him twice, killing him. What Manolo does not know is that Maria is not dead and now he has to find a way to return to life somehow to win her heart back.
The problems with this movie lie in the first half. Things seem to just move from one moment to the next and it is not really the smooth fairy tale story that fans of Del Toro are used to. It might not be fair to put that much pressure on Gutierrez, but the movie could have used a steady hand to pace it better. There was a bookend taking place in the modern day where school kids were told this story that kept the humor in place, but the real meat of the story was in the tale of the bullfighter, musician and the woman they loved.
It was here that this movie seemed to stutter along. When Manolo prepared to fight to return to the land of the living at the same time that a major bad guy threatened to destroy the town as he looked for the immortality amulet that he had stolen from him, the movie picked up and roared to a satisfying, and pleasant, conclusion. If the rest of the movie played as well as the final battle, this movie would have been much better.
There is also the animation in The Book of Life, which was very unique and unusually gorgeous, but at the same time there was so much going on in the film that the striking animation was almost too much. It was a case of the story never matching the painstaking work that went into creating the look of the film. Maybe with a more balanced story, this could have been the masterpiece that Guillermo Del Toro fans dreamed of.