Damn this is so Mexican I half expected Robert Rodriguez to be the director. Indeed it is also no surprise to find out Guillermo del Toro was a producer on this movie although the entire project has that nice death obsessed Tim Burton-esque vibe to it much like 'Corpse Bride', you could almost say this was a Mexican version of a Tim Burton project.
The book of life contains all the stories of the world and one such tale revolves around a small town in Mexico (year unknown but I'm guessing its in the past) on the Day of the Dead. The spirits of the dead La Muerte (ruler of the land of the remembered) and Xibalba (ruler of the land of forgotten) see two young boys competing for the attention of a young girl, they make a bet over which young boy will end up marrying the girl first. If La Muerte wins then Xibalba can no longer mess with mortals for fun and if Xibalba wins then he will rule the land of the remembered. The land of remembered being a fun colourful lively afterlife where its always party time, the land of forgotten being like a black and grey coloured Tim Burton vision...OK I promise to stop with the Tim Burton references.
The plot is probably the weakest part of this movie as it really doesn't make much sense or have any real weight to it. These two ghostly spirits make this wager on the young children but I'm not really sure why they do this, or why they even care what these kids get up to in the future. Its also an odd bet because they will both have to wait many many years to see the outcome, and what happens if neither of them marry this girl? surely they could make another simpler wager.
That is one half of the plot, the other is about the two boys who grow up into strong men and again compete to win the hand of their childhood girlfriend (Maria, seriously couldn't they have used a better and less stereotypical name). One of the lads (Manolo) becomes a bullfighter following his family tradition but is unsure of his fathers expectations and prefers to sing. He is the more well adjusted of the two, kind, generous and considerate. The other lad (Joaquin) becomes a well known military hero who protects the town but is a show off and narcissistic.
All the while the pair are watched over by the two rulers of the underworld, you might ask what exactly all this has to do with the afterlife, well all that kicks off when Manolo gets killed in a trick by Xibalba. In a typically Romeo and Juliet fashion Manolo believes Maria to be dead after she is bitten by a snake sent by...you guessed it, Xibalba. So Xibalba tricks him by offering a chance to see her again which of course would mean dying...which he doesn't quite work out in time. Hence Manolo is out of the picture and Xibalba can win his bet.
So yeah we've seen this type of story line before, nothing wrong with that of course but its all pretty shallow stuff. This movie is all about the visuals...and what visuals! Honesty at the start I was a little put off by the design of the picture, the characters were very basic and weekday cartoon looking to me, clearly they were going for a different approach but first impressions were worrying. As we delve further into the story and reach Mexico again the character/landscape designs took a change but this time for the better. Now we are confronted by this oddly surreal blocky look which kinda resembles Lego men and figurines that have been carved out of wood. Well that's the main characters anyway, background characters are even more off the wall with outrageous facial designs and body structures that I can only think are somewhat along the lines of Ren & Stimpy. On one hand grotesque but at the same time highly imaginative, the whole vibe feels very much like a continental animation to me. Anyone remember the PC videogame Grim Fandango? well think along those lines too.
The highlight is obviously the afterlife sequences where things really become bizarre and extremely visceral. This movie is all about Mexican folklore, Mexican myth and magic, Mexican, Latino, Spanish culture (if you hadn't already guessed) and this is where is explodes onto your screen. Up to this point the Day of the Dead was just a background theme but on arrival in the land of remembered its a full on mardi gras of colourfully epic proportions. The artistic style is still thoroughly absurd and crazy but it really does boggle your senses in a good way, its like...Beetlejuice in Mexico. Chock full of detail on every frame there has clearly been a lot of time, love and attention to create those tiny details and make it as accurate as possible.
From an visually artistic point of view this movie is truly award winning, a breath of fresh air, smart and original. I can see some folk not adjusting to the look though, its definitely not gonna be for everyone. Alas the plot is a tad stale and predictable with its soppy notions sure but it is a kids film essentially, gotta remember that. I twisted in horror at the use of some modern pop songs that were used here and there, that really spoilt the atmosphere, but twas nice to hear Ennio Morricone's Ecstasy of Gold. Always a problem these days, they have to include some ghastly pop music for the kids to relate to, ruins the dark ambience.
The film really comes alive (no pun intended) after Manolo gets killed its as simple as that, up to then everything is bit meh to be honest. From there on its a vibrant hyperactive wacky-ass cartoon/animation that is a solid celebration of Mexican lore and tradition of which the young can learn from. At the end of the day there is nothing here that hasn't really been done before, but the fact its been created around a culture and heritage that hasn't really been explored fully on film before makes all the difference.