The harmonious comingling of life and death is the just first and weightiest of the many strange, beautiful bedfellows to be found in filmmaker Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, as the spectacular festivities honoring the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) provide the backdrop for childhood friends Maria (Zoe Saldana), Manolo (Diego Luna), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) to become entangled in a bet between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the leaders of two different underworlds.
Xibalba, unhappy with ruling the unremembered souls in the desolate Land of the Forgotten, and frustrated that the constant celebrations in the Land of the Remembered are just out of his reach, sets the terms: They will each select a boy as their champion to win Maria’s hand in marriage in the coming years. La Muerte, who chooses Manolo, agrees to give Xibalba control of the Land of the Remembered should Maria give her love to Joaquin, while Xibalba promises to stop meddling in human affairs if Manolo weds Maria.
As is often the case among gambling gods, however, somebody cheats. Also, to their credit, both young men value Maria’s heart over her hand, and neither wants to trap the woman with whom they are both in love—even when marrying despite Maria’s reluctance would help keep their town safe from a terrifying creature known as the Chakal. As a result, fate and free will play off each other alongside archaic and modern attitudes towards marriage—and they play nicely.
The Book of Life is as aesthetically intricate as it is thematically complex. Elaborate threadwork, bright colors, and rounded curves adorn the characters’ computer-generated, blockish bodies; at the same time, candy and lush vegetation surround the shockingly un-macabre, hollow-eyed skeletons who have found a home in death. The film’s only real failing is that musician Manolo is often relegated to singing Top 40 pop tunes, which is a disappointment given the strength of the movie’s original score and the heavy emphasis on writing, singing, and fighting from the heart. There is no reason for Manolo to sing these songs, other than to remind adults of the music of their own youth; it simply isn’t necessary.
Even so, there is something to be said for a world where Biz Markie and Radiohead can exist side by side with life, death, love, hate, friendship, rivalry, and everything in between. When all is said and done, The Book of Life is a complex and unique film that could have gone wrong in every possible way, and instead went spectacularly right.