“The Book of Life” is a Mexican-accented kids’ cartoon so colorful and unconventionally dazzling it almost reinvents the art form. As pretty as a just-punctured pinata, endlessly inventive, warm and traditional, it serves up Mexican culture in a riot of Mexican colors and mariachi-flavored music.
The tale is told by a museum tour guide in an effort to impress a raucous bunch of American school kids. Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) recounts a love story built around El dia de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. And the moment that story begins, the computer-animated style switches from quirky, big-headed, plastic-looking adults and kids to a bizarre, wooden-puppet world of the past, the Mexican village of San Angel.
That’s where Maria (Zoe Saldana), a feisty girl, was pursued by Manolo (Diego Luna), the bullfighter’s son who only wants to sing and play the guitar, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the war hero’s son who only wants to live up to his late father’s fame.
Their courtship duel becomes a wager in the afterlife, where La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) vie for primacy over the “Land of the Remembered.”
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Manolo becomes a bullfighter who refuses to “finish” the bull; Joaquin becomes a hero who doesn’t fear death, thanks to a magic medal Xibalba slips him; and Maria grows up to become a proto-feminist who won’t be an easy catch for either of them.
Joaquin collects medals to win Maria; Manolo sings. Luna’s cover versions of songs from Elvis, Radiohead and Mumford and Sons add romance to the proceedings.
The production design, by Paul Sullivan and Simon Vladimir Varela, is stunning — textured puppet figures that have the feel of sanded, painted and embossed wood; mosaics; fanciful adobe-clad bullring and church; bulls and boars that are all horns; hooves and snorting nostrils and characters with oversized heads that Picasso would have recognized.
Director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierez keeps this simple story on the move, and producer Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” touch is felt throughout. The film is adorned with all manner of clever jokes, gorgeous sight gags and the little flourishes.
The gringo school-kids who are hearing the tale comment on it with plenty of snark.
“What is it with Mexicans and death?”
Amini-chorus of nuns chirps up, from time to time. The town priest is masked as a luchador, a Mexican wrestler. The unmistakable voices of the great tenor Placido Domingo, the great comic Cheech Marin, Ice Cube (hilarious) and movie tough guy Danny Trejo turn up.
At this point in the animation game, we know what to expect of Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks. “Book of Life” is something new and a gigantic step up from Reel FX Animation’s previous work (“Free Birds”). This sometimes riotous, always charming film suggest they’ve taken their own movie’s message to heart. You can “write your own story,” and have it pay off.