Review: The Book of Life

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Manolo is a young man trying to please his family, as well as satisfy his passion for playing music. That and his love of his childhood friend Maria soon lead him on an adventure that expands well past the living realm, into the Land of the Forgotten and the Land of the Remembered.

It is a rare treat when a mainstream animated feature chooses to tell a heartfelt tale in lieu of presenting its young audience a brand new catalog of stuffed toys they can collect. THE BOOK OF LIFE is that uncommon story told from the heart, thanks to director Jorge R. Gutierrez (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Douglas Langdale). It is a lively and vibrant celebration of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, one that features music and some of the most awe-inspiring images in a family film this year. This is an entertaining and lively story that ably manages to incorporate such a serious subject as death to surprising effectiveness.

The story begins as mysterious tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) leads a small but rowdy group of kids on a field trip through a museum. In a hidden corridor, she tells them the story of three young children whose fate seemingly had an impact on the world as we know it. Manolo is a young boy who loves to play guitar. Joaquin is the same age, but dreams of becoming a mustached hero. And Maria is the girl both love, and though she cares for each of them, she desires her own adventurous life. When the devious Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of The Land of the Forgotten, proposes a wager to swap lands with the powerful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) who rules over The Land of the Remembered, they each secretly make one of the boys their champion as to who will win Maria’s heart.

After Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns to her hometown years later while off to study abroad, both her suitors have found success in their own ways. Manolo (Diego Luna) is on his way to becoming a famous bullfighter – even if his heart still lies with music. And Joaquin (Channing Tatum), after a cheating Xibabla offers him a medal which keeps him out of harm’s way, has become a legendary hero. Both boys have the shadows of their past following closely behind. Manolo has a history of legendary bullfighters and Joaquin with his own father who was struck down at the hands of Chakal (Dan Navarro). And unfortunately for all involved, Chakal learns that Joaquin has the precious medal stolen from him by Xibabla, and plans to retrieve it by destroying everything in his path.

This may sound complicated, especially since this adventure takes place in three different worlds. Yet it moves along nicely without being overly confusing. Even as we witness Manolo finding his way to The Land of the Remembered thanks to that rascal Xibabla, this exuberant feature is able to make it all work. In fact, when Manolo faces his own untimely mortality is when the story really begins. Without revealing how or why, the young, would be, matador comes face to face the deceased, which includes a very sweet reunion with his mother Carmen (Ana de la Reguera) who had passed away when he was a child. Together, along with the entire skeleton Sanchez clan, they must figure out a way to protect their town and the memories that keep them in loved ones memory.

Using Mexico’s Day of the Dead as its canvass, Gutierrez paints a heartfelt portrait of this universal love story. While you won’t find anything new when it comes to the romantic triangle – it still works – there is so much on display that you will be charmed nonetheless. This is a big and bright and colorful world, especially in the magical Land of the Remembered. Using his Mexican heritage, the filmmaker creates a vibrant landscape filled with skeletons, skulls and a very extravagantly drawn La Muerte. The characters themselves are brilliantly displayed, while not all are what you might call attractive. Aside from the leads, many of the supporting characters are strangely shaped with an out of place nose, massively round body, or other odd and post-impressionistically drawn features. Sometimes the “uglier” they get, the more compelling they are.

Not only is THE BOOK OF LIFE exciting to look at, the music is quite creative as well. The soundtrack includes a number of recognizable songs including Mumford & Sons “I Will Wait”, Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” and an inspired rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Yet each tune is given a little bit of Mexican flair. My only complaint about the music is how short the songs are, even on the soundtrack. Just when you are getting into Diego Luna belting one out, it seems to end. In addition to the covers, there are a couple of new songs including “I Love You Too Much” – written by the legendary Paul Williams – that add even more heart to Manolo’s romantically inclined mariachi in love.

The cast is a varied collection of talent including producer Guillermo del Toro regular Ron Perlman along with Kate del Castillo as the marvelous Xibalba and La Meurte. Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum are perfect for the romantic leads. And Ice Cube, Hector Elizondo and Danny Trejo – as well as the rest of the supporting players – add fun layers to this magical tale. While Gutierrez may try a little too hard to please at times with this robust animated feature, it is told with an open heart and a whole lot of love. THE BOOK OF LIFE is funny, familiar, and fanciful, and it is one of the best animated features of the year.


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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.