"The Book of Life" is an example of a complicated children's film, in that, while aimed for children, contains a certain amount of undertones which raises problems when the film starts to be critiqued as not only just a children's film.
Directed and co-written by Jorge Gutierrez, "The Book of Life" begins with a group of students, known as the "troubled" kids for always being in detention, undergoing a secret museum tour. The enigmatic tour guide (Christina Applegate), takes them to a grand room dedicated to showcasing Mexico's "Day of the Dead" holiday. From here, the film's initial story becomes secondary, with the tour guide telling the children a folktale centered around the Day of the Dead holiday.
"The Book of Life's" story is a simple one that plays out like normal traditional folktales. There exists two worlds beyond the human one. The first is "the Land of the Remembered." Here, those who are dead celebrate the afterlife through festivities, and on the Day of the Dead, comfort their loved ones. The second world is "the Land of the Forgotten," and is named so because the dead that inhabit this world no longer have anyone left alive to remember them.
Visually, each land is impressive in its construction. The Land of the Remembered is filled with vibrant colors, eye-popping floats, and there's a constant sense of motion, be it the various balloons that decorate the screen or the massive amount of people celebrating. In contrast, the Land of the Forgotten is a muted greenish-blue. Furthermore, the citizens lack any corporeal form and maintain translucent, ghost-like figures. A constant wind moves throughout, blowing the citizens away into dust, symbolizing being forgotten. All this works in turn to make the Land of the Forgotten as desolate and depressing as its counterpart, the Land of the Remembered, is joyous and celebratory.
Each land has its own ruler. The Land of the Remembered is ruled by La Muerte while the Land of the Dead is ruled by Xibalba. While both are beautifully animated, whether its constantly teleporting and warping through the village or their vivid body and facial movements, Ron Perlman as Xibalba steals the show. It's hard to think that a voice could make a character (although in recent memory Scarlett Johansson and Johnny Depp help to disprove this in their respective films "Her," and "Transcendence"), but between Xibalba's animation, personality, and Perlman's voice, Xibalba easily becomes the most likeable character. Perlman, bringing in the gruff voice that has helped to characterize him other films, such as "Hellboy", gives Xibalba the malicious tone that the character deserves.
"The Book of Life's" real plot begins when La Muerte and Xibalba make a bet on which of two boys will win their friend's hand in marriage. La Muerte puts her favor on the artistic Manolo Sanchez, (Emil Bouffard and Diego Luna)who wants to grow up to be a musician, but because of family tradition, is forced to become a bull-fighter. In contrast, Xibalba blesses his best-friend and rival, Joaquin (Elias Garza and Channing Tatum), an orphan whose father sacrificed himself fending off bandits. Joaquin thinks head-first and where Manolo attempts to woo Maria through music, Joaquin seeks to win her over through impressive, physical feats.
Who stands out the most in terms of characterization, however, is the love interest herself, Maria Posada (Genesis Ochoa and Zoe Saldana). Maria is the purported "damsel in distress," yet writers Doug Landale and Jorge Gutierrez break the character away from the trope. After being sent off to Europe by her father, an older Maria returns, yet with her she brings a respectable role-model of a character for female audiences. When Joaquin prompts her to be his wife and tells her that she could cook and clean all day, she scoffs at the idea, instead, choosing to embrace her own ideals and freedom. Towards the end of the film's climactic battle Maria does more than just prove herself useful, not only rallying the villagers to protect themselves, but physically joining the fight as well.
Despite Maria's characterization there still exists a problem with the character's agency as a female. Even if she does manage to break away from certain conventional tropes, Maria as a character ultimately still only functions to be married off to either Joaquin or Manolo. Maria, then, is still trapped within a certain ideological narrative on women, and her overall behavior is still governed by this narrative.
"The Book of Life's" most distinguishing aspect is its embrace in Mexican culture, which is through the Day of the Dead holiday. When the film begins, one of the very first credits to be introduced is Guillermo Del Toro as a producer. In this cultural embrace there's a certain level of authenticity the film attempts to have. One scene towards the beginning, depicts the villagers celebrating the Day of the Dead holiday and while audiences may only pay attention to the foreground, major activity, thanks to depth of focus shots, can be seen in the background. This ranges from watching inconsequential characters walking around, children playing, etc. What these inconsequential characters do, however, is that by having them there, the film's portrayal of the festival becomes more realistic. There's an immersive feeling that arises from seeing such a busy frame in this context.
That very same authenticity, however, is hurt by the film's budget of only $50 million. "The Book of Life" takes place in Mexico, yet all the character's speak English, and the film's soundtrack is comprised of English songs as well. This differs from a film such as Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," where American actors play French roles, because "The Book of Life" is an animation film. "Paths of Glory" is able to get a pass for not being spoken in French, because, feasibly speaking, Kubrick and his crew would have much more trouble getting their English-speaking actors to speak in French.
Characters within the film speak English with Mexican accents, and certain characters even speak a stereotyped English that the film could have gone without. This isn't limited to just the Spanish characters, however, but by a character like "the Candle Maker (Ice Cube)." The Candle Maker isn't human, yet speaks, uses dialect, and behaves in a manner that connotes racial stereotypes around African-Americans.
Going on towards the film's soundtrack, Gutierrez chooses to use modern-pop songs sung by the characters. At times it seems as if it was meant to work towards the film's humor but for the most part seemed entirely unfitting. One disjointing scene has Manolo pick up his guitar before breaking out into Radiohead's "Creep."
There's a certain level of creativity and execution present in the film that makes Gutierrez and his crew a studio to be on the lookout for. The film's small budget, while bringing the some problems both inside and out the film, makes it so that their next project, hopefully with a bigger budget, can avoid said issues.