Film review: Visuals take center stage in ‘The Book of Life’

Film review: Visuals take center stage in ‘The Book of Life’
“The Book of Life,” from producer Guillermo Del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez is an animated feature with a unique visual style. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Reel FX

Rife with glorious animated artistry and solid vocal talents, “The Book of Life” is a delightful Day of the Dead-oriented gem.

When it comes to forming your own identity, it’s important to follow your heart, for what better way is there to live your life than to be true to yourself? This is especially true in the case of animation, where the core is the guiding hand that holds everything together; therefore, what’s on the inside affects what’s on the outside.

Which is exactly the kind of situation that Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna), a torero with a guitar and a pair of swords, finds himself in when the path he desires to walk clashes with his father’s expectations. Further complicating matters is the love he feels for Maria (Zoe Saldana), whom his charming friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is already wooing.

All this is part of a wager between the underworld spirits La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) to determine which man will become Maria’s lover. Before deciding which life he wants to follow, however, Manolo has to embark on a fantastic journey spanning three otherworldly dominions in order to face his deepest insecurities.

All it takes is one glance at the face of “The Book of Life” to recognize its inner radiance, powered by a heart blessed with a wonderful pulse. And the simple mention of Guillermo del Toro’s name is reason enough to give it a shot, given his knack for producing quality projects.

Such splendor manifests in the form of vibrant animation and striking artwork. Under the lively direction of Jorge Gutierrez, there is this zesty beauty within the settings and character designs that adds to the film’s distinctive personality. And if you think the world of the living is interesting, then you have no idea what imaginative possibilities await you in the three realms of the dead: the Land of the Remembered, the Cave of Souls, and the Land of the Forgotten.

From what I’ve seen, the old saying “It’s the heart that counts” perfectly describes the visual style they opted for, and I think Gutierrez and his teams of artists and animators deserve extra points for embracing their creative brilliance to realize the film’s unique appearance.

And it is due to their enthusiasm and diligence that the audience gets to participate in an enjoyable folk tale-esque story set against a Day of the Dead backdrop, one that is rich in romance, adventure, and humor. Children and adults will find much to appreciate in that universal theme of being torn between following your hopes and fulfilling your family traditions, as seen through the eyes of Manolo.

I also liked the central romantic element — the love triangle involving Manolo, Maria and Joaquin — in terms of how it actually holds your attention and has plenty of amusing and solemn moments to sustain the exciting chemistry among the three. But probably the most important aspect that Gutierrez remembered to include in “The Book of Life,” however, was sharing that same vivacity he instilled in his visuals and story with his voice cast.

The three principal amigos — Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, and Channing Tatum — succeed in carrying the film’s colorful, heartfelt emotions through their animated counterparts, be it Manolo’s tender humility, Maria’s feisty strength, or Joaquin’s charming honor. Last but not least, Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman certainly proved themselves to be entertaining scene-stealers in their roles of La Muerte and Xibalba, respectively.

I have a good feeling that moviegoers will delight in the true colors of “The Book of Life,” with kudos to Jorge Gutierrez’s earnest direction, remarkable artwork, fantastic storyline, and competent voice acting. By the way, if the Average Joe decides to learn more about Day of the Dead customs and imagery on account of this nifty animated film, I wouldn’t be surprised.

MPAA rating: PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images.

Run time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Playing: In general release

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