Whatever you may think about Pixar’s animated output, even their worst films can’t be said to stoop to the same level of lowest-common-denominator pandering often on display throughout Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, the latest Reel FX Creative Studios effort after last year’s Free Birds. No ethnic stereotype is too off-limits, and no pop song too anachronistic to plunder, for the sake of entertaining the kids and adults in the audience. This is the kind of film where cheesy one-liners like “It’s a good day for doom” coexist with even more forehead-slap-worthy mariachi-flavored renditions of songs like Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” and Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait.”
Which is a shame because the animation’s level of attention to detail is often astonishing, right down to the intricate character designs: the green cactus-like formations jutting out of the arm pads of Xibalba ((Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten; the visible wood grain on the faces of both male romantic leads, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum); the yellow light bulbs surrounded by darkness that replace human eyes when people in this world die and go to the afterlife. Gutierrez’s vision of the underworld, which is unveiled midway through the film, breathtakingly overflows with bright colors and riotous invention, comparable in dizzying enchantment to the world Phil Lord and Christopher Miller imagined for The Lego Movie.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the underworld depicted in The Book of Life seems livelier than the relatively more mundane world above ground. Inspired by Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead festivities, the film is in part about the value of keeping alive the memories of the departed. This idea, in fact, becomes an integral part of Manolo’s third-act quest to return to the land of the living: The fate of an entire spirit realm is at stake if he doesn’t succeed in winning back the love of his life, Maria (Zoe Saldana), thus ensuring the aforementioned Xibalba loses a wager that would lead him to take over the Land of the Remembered from kindly spirit La Muerte (Kate del Castillo).
But if co-producer Guillermo del Toro was willing to wade unapologetically into morbid waters in his own live-action fantasy adventures, Gutierrez subsumes its darker themes in a relentlessly busy farrago of predictable kids’-movie tropes and annoying attempts at hipness. Just because Maria is characterized here as a spunky feminist type who occasionally evinces weariness at the efforts of sensitive bullfighter Manolo and macho soldier Joaquin’s attempts to woo her doesn’t fully banish the retrograde staleness of its central love triangle. (It certainly doesn’t help that Gutierrez, who co-wrote the film with Douglas Lansdale, clearly stacks the deck in favor of Manolo, making Joaquin a buffoon who only gains his strength through help from a disguised Xibalba.) And when Manolo, during his trip to the underworld, encounters the Candle Maker who guards the titular Book of Life, perhaps it’s no surprise that this supreme spirit being turns out to be voiced by Ice Cube, in a maneuver that seems like little more than an attempt to give the late Robin Williams’s Genie from Aladdin a run for its money. So blatant is the commercial calculation behind such moves that, even as certain images and environments linger in the memory afterward, one can’t help but lament the bolder and more resonant film The Book of Life might have been if it hadn’t felt a need to desperately Entertain at seemingly every turn.