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The Book of Life Deals More in Death and Questionable Truth

<i>The Book of Life</i> Deals More in Death and Questionable Truth

DVD Release Date: January 27, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 17, 2014
Rating: PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman, Cheech Marin, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Placido Domingo

"What is it with Mexicans and death?" This question posed by one of the characters in The Book of Life may resonate with audiences wondering the same thing. This brightly-colored, festive film is full of humor, charming characters, and some interesting life lessons... but quite a lot of it is about death and what happens after death (which does not resemble anything you’ll find in the Bible).

It’s The Day of the Dead when group of young students has their museum field trip hijacked by a tour guide for a "special" tour. In Mexico, she says, this is the day families visit cemeteries to leave offerings on the altars of the graves of their dearly departed. Or as director Jorge R. Gutierrez puts it, “The core belief behind The Day of the Dead is that as long as you remember those who came before you... they're with you. They live inside your heart." from crosswalkmovies on GodTube.

The guide tells the children that those who have passed on go to one of two mythical worlds ruled by feuding "ancient gods" La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, Trade) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman, Pacific Rim). This dysfunctional couple once made a wager over which boy a young girl will choose to marry. The winner would rule over The Land of the Remembered while the loser would be consigned to the desolate Land of the Forgotten.

This takes us to Maria (Zoe Saldana, Avatar) and her two best buds Manolo (Diego Luna, The Terminal) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street). Maria's a high-spirited chica who's more apt to lead the charge than wait to be rescued. Her antics force her exasperated father to send her off to school in Europe. While Maria's away learning to be a lady (with her pet pig in tow) her erstwhile suitors have their own educations to see to. Manolo comes from a long line of famous bullfighters and has the natural ability to be the best of them... if he can just bring himself to finish off a bull. Manolo would rather make music than be a matador, but his proud father (Hector Elizondo, Music Within) is having none of that. Meanwhile, his buddy Joaquin follows his own father's footsteps to become the town champion, with a mighty mustache and a chest full of medals to prove it. What the town doesn’t know is that Joaquin's success is due in part to the "medal of everlasting life" given to him by Xibalba, who is backing Joaquin to win his bet and is not above cheating to guarantee success.

Thanks to Xibalba's underhanded ways Manolo comes to believe Maria has died and in a Romeo-and-Juliet-like fit of despair decides to meet her in the afterlife. Imagine his surprise when he arrives only to find he's been had. It will take the combined effort of Manolo, his ancestors, another ancient god known as the Candle Maker (Ice Cube, Are We Done Yet?), and La Muerte herself to set things right, save the town from destruction, and let true love run its course.

Back at the museum the tour guide brings out wooden dolls to act out the story, so when they come to life onscreen the characters are appropriately wooden in looks. It's a nice twist on the usual smooth-faced animated characters. There are some nice effects including swords put to good use as mirrors in pivotal moments. It certainly sounds like the entire cast is having a marvelous time; Tatum was particularly delightful as the heroic Joaquin (with a heroic mustache!) who eventually learns true heroism does not require supernatural assistance.

Given Manolo's obsession with music the soundtrack is a big part of the story. The songs are a hilarious mix of everything from Elvis and Mumford and Sons to Radiohead and Rod Stewart, plus two beautiful, original songs written by two-time Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla and the award-winning Paul Williams. However, a riff on the Ave Maria by nuns when young Maria leaves for school seemed a bit crass.

The plot tends to wander into tangents and even at 95 minutes the film felt too long. But the overall impression is a lively, funny, sweet tale about being true to yourself and your calling. Unfortunately, the theology/mythology surrounding the story will make it problematic for parents trying to instill biblical truth in their young children.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Several characters are shown drinking and drunk; one admits "we've been to four bars."
  • Language/Profanity: None noted
  • Sex/Nudity: La Muerte uses some mildly seductive moves to get Xibalba to do what she wants; a few kisses
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense: There are skulls and ghosts; a boy walks into a crypt; in bullfighting scenes both man and beast are in peril;at least half the characters are dead; the town is in danger from bandits; multiple fights; a magical, poisonous snake bites people.
  • Spiritual Themes: "All the world is made of stories and all the stories are in here," "Here" being The Book of Life which is said to contain "truth" even though some of the stories may not be true. In this world the afterlife is ruled over by ancient gods who place wagers on the activities of humans (and cheat to try and win the bet) and one's eternal destination is determined by how memorable you are. There's nothing much that resembles a biblical point of view, at least from a Protestant-evangelical frame of reference.

Publication date: October 17, 2014