Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum
Directed by: Jorge R. Gutierrez (debut)
Written by: Jorge R. Gutierrez (debut) and Douglas Langdale (debut)
The Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is as festive a celebration of death and dying as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Meant to honor and remember the dead, the Halloween-adjacent holiday features intricate, colorful depictions of skulls, a full spectrum of flowers, and sweet breads placed on altars to pay tribute to family members who have passed on. “The Book of Life,” an animated film produced by Mexican-born Guillermo Del Toro, spends its second half awash in the style of the holiday, depicting its characters as wood-carved representations of sugar skulls attending lavish parades in the Land of the Remembered. Unfortunately, this is where the plotting becomes most routine, wasting the beautiful visuals on what ultimately amounts to a ho-hum, by-the-book animated film with miscast celebrity voiceovers.
The movie begins as a story within a story told to schoolchildren visiting a museum. It centers on the relationship between three childhood friends in a small Mexican village who are made the subject of a wager between supernatural rulers La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (voice of Ron Perlman). Aspiring singer Miguel and his macho soldier-in-the-making best friend Manolo both nurse a crush on Maria, a mischievous girl who is friends to them both. When one of their adventures gets out of hand, Maria’s father sends her away to a convent in Spain to curb her wild ways. As the years pass and the boys grow into men, Miguel (voice of Channing Tatum) has been pressured into bullfighting by his father and Manolo (voice of of Diego Luna) has become the decorated soldier he always dreamed of. On the day Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana) is to return to the village, both men make a play for her heart. When tragedy strikes, though, Miguel makes a grim bargain with Xibalba and must venture through the realms of dead to follow his heart.
While never venturing in to bad movie territory, “The Book of Life” begins to wear thin at the halfway mark. The lack of commitment to an all-Hispanic voice cast really begins to stand out when very white guy Channing Tatum takes over the voice of the adult Miguel, and really gets into groan-worthy territory when Ice Cube turns up as a mythical candle maker who talks exactly like Ice Cube circa 2014, sans curse words. Miguel’s adventure through the colorful Land of the Remembered and the grim Land of the Forgotten take too long to get going and end up feeling rushed. These scenes are filled with leaps of logic and end up being nothing but a retread of a frantic lesser Dreamworks animated piece of filler, which is a shame because the production design is strikingly unique from start to finish. “The Book of Life” doesn’t deserve to be left with the forgotten souls, but don’t bother leaving any pan dulce on the altar for it either.