Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
During the Day of the Dead celebration in the town of San Angel, the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, Xibalba (Ron Pearlman) challenges La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, to a wager. Young Maria (Zoe Saldana) has two young men vying for her attention, sensitive musician Manolo(Diego Luna) and courageous soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum). I Maria marries Manolo, La Muerte will rule over both realms of the afterlife, but if Maria chooses Joaquin, then Xibalba takes control of the Land of the Remembered. Even though both men love Maria deeply, when it looks as though Manolo will be her betrothed, Xibalba interferes and tricks Manolo into trading his life for Maria’s. With Manolo gone and the fearsome outlaw Chakal (Dan Navorro) threatening the town, Joaquin promises to stay and defend San Angel if Maria will marry him. Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Manolo realizes that he has been deceived and vows to return to his beloved Maria. With the help of La Muerta and The Candlemaker (Ice Cube), Manolo must pass a test to prove the purity of his heart and be returned to the land of the living in time to help Joaquin save San Angel from Chakal and reclaim his true love.
The animation in The Book of Life is absolutely gorgeous. The vibrancy of the colors and the creativity of the imagery is by far the best thing in the movie. Each setting is more eye-popping than the last and if you are paying close attention, you will see so many details and flourishes that indicate the care and love that this film was made with. Aside from that, most everything else about this movie is unremarkable. There are some nice voice performances, but the majority of them are flat. Channing Tatum and Zoe Saldana are especially forgettable, which surprised me because of how much I like them both.
The biggest letdown for me was how there was no nuance to the story. Joaquin and Manolo are both good people and they both love Maria equally, but since Manolo sings songs (Oddly, one of them is Radiohead’s Creep), is sensitive and kind to animals, obviously he deserves Maria. Why? Other than the fact that Xibalba chooses Joaquin, what is his fatal flaw? He is an orphan that idolizes his father who died heroically saving San Angel so he also wants to become a great soldier. The movie tries to paint him as a bit of a vain chauvinist, but it doesn’t really hold up. His flaw is that he isn’t Manolo. Secondly, Maria must be smarter, tougher and braver than the boys, because heaven forbid there is even a moment where she needs any help. First, when Manolo and Joaquin clash swords with each other, Maria disarms them both before archly saying, “Did I mention I studied fencing?”. Then, when the town is facing off with Chakal and his outlaws, she goes full Crouching Tiger knocking out people with spinning kicks and back flips before casually dropping, “Did I mention I studied Kung Fu?” I am surprised that she wasn’t a better singer than Manolo too. I am all for girl power, but if she is really so clearly superior to both of her suitors in every way, why would she want either of them? Vulnerability isn’t weakness and I think preteens (the target market for this movie) are smart enough to realize that. Make the effort to challenge your audience a little more and they will thank you for it. C+