Directed by Jorge R Gutierrez
Written by Douglas Langdale and Jorge R Gutierrez
It can be incredibly difficult for animated movies not made by a major studio to get a foothold. Never mind not being Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, even Sony Animation and Blue Sky at least have some push. Book of Life is done by a first-time feature length director (he's done TV work before), and his vision shines through clearly, even if it gets a little muddled along the way.
Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are best friends who have also been in love with the same girl, Maria (Zoe Saldana), since they were kids. What none of them know is that the love triangle is also being watched by the death gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who've put a bet that whoever wins will get to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered, while the loser rules the desolate Land of the Forgotten. And Xibalba is not above cheating...
Book of Life's greatest strength is its visuals. The movie takes place as if it's being told with wooden figures, and it shows with the character designs. They exaggerate features, giving war heroes chests full of medals, making round mariachis who can just roll around, and having characters who look like 2D paintings given life. The wooden features give the characters visible joints, older characters will have more visible wood grain, stubble is just a different layer of wood. It's truly remarkable from start to finish, and gives the movie plenty of visual gags to work off of. And once it hits the Land of the Remembered, it's easy for your jaw to drop completely.
Sadly, for its dazzling visuals, the writing has issues. The story and themes are so standard as to be cliché, with no real surprises along the way. This doesn't mean it's not enjoyable to watch, it's just not going to throw any twists your way. The pacing is also off. Trailers made it seem like a majority of the movie would take place in the Land of the Remembered. Instead, about 10 minutes are spent there. Considering how awesome the skeletal character designs look, you'd think they'd give that part of the movie the majority. But the biggest problem comes from the movie's framing device: a story being told to a group of kids in a museum. It means the movie constantly stops to narrate what's going on or give exposition. Or just cut away to the group of white kids. It reeks of executive meddling, the studio getting terrified that a movie full of Mexican characters won't be watched, so they tacked on some white characters at the last minute.
Regardless of faults, Gutierrez gives a solid effort here, and if he can follow the movie's moral and get out of the studio's shadow, he can do something truly incredible. As it is, Book of Life is enjoyable, but its visuals don't match up to its story problems.