By Laura Emerick/For Sun-Times Media
“What’s up with Mexicans and death?” asks an exasperated character halfway through the animated fantasy “The Book of Life.” Unless you’re steeped in Greek mythology, Judeo-Christian tenets and Mexican iconography and traditions, especially El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), you might be asking, “What’s up with this movie?”
Lots, actually. Using the Day of the Dead as a jumping-off point, writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro lead viewers on a fantastical journey set in three realms — the Land of the Living, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. It’s a wonderful afterlife, where the most important lesson is to honor the spirits of the deceased: “As long as we remember them, they are still with us.”
Set in Mexico of the late 19th century, “The Book of Life” moves fast and furiously amid its complicated plot turns. Two warring deities, La Muerte and Xibalba (the name of the underworld, in Mayan culture), wager whether the feisty Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana) will choose the humble musician Manolo (Diego Luna) — the reluctant scion of a line of bullfighters — or the pompous soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum). When a tragedy seemingly strikes Maria, Manolo ventures into the underworld, like a modern-day Orpheus, to find her. Meanwhile, back in their hometown, Joaquin must stave off an attack from the bandit leader Chakal.
There’s more, in the form of meddling relatives, a hip-hop-styled savior (Ice Cube), comic relief provided by a trio of bungling mariachis and a Don Quixote type who pines for the opera (Placido Domingo). Most of this will fly over the heads of the film’s target audience; they’ll be entranced, however, by the vividly hued computer-generated animation that explodes off the screen, thanks to judicious use of 3-D. The film’s color scheme and marionette-like figures recall the folk art known as cartoneria, especially popular for Day of the Dead ofrendas (celebratory altars).
The second production from Dallas-based Reel FX Creative Studios, “The Book of Life” boasts a first-rate pedigree. Along with del Toro, the creative team includes two-time Oscar winner (and alt-Latin mastermind) Gustavo Santaolalla, who produced and arranged the score, which features zany, mariachi-tinged versions of pop hits such as “Creep” and “I Will Wait.” He also wrote two songs with ’70s pop music powerhouse Paul Williams for the film.
The movie’s narrator informs us that Mexico “is the center of the universe” — a land where they apparently speak fluent English. A few Spanish expressions are tossed in occasionally to reduce the film’s over-all SoCal ambiance. Whether en ingles o en espanol, “The Book of Life” is a delight. In an animated universe cluttered with kung-fu pandas, ice princesses and video-game heroes, Gutierrez and del Toro have conjured up an original vision.
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and written by Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG (for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images). Opens Friday at local theaters.