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the-book-of-life-posterThe new animated film from producer Guillermo del Toro and animator Jorge R. Gutierez is full of great messages for the audience. Even if one of them doesn’t really go anywhere, it can’t hurt. While it’s a tad busy and overloaded at first, it all pays off so nicely that I appreciate the total package.

A group of school kids at a museum is shown a special hidden exhibit about the Day of the Dead through the story of Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). Manolo comes from a matador family, and he’s a great matador but refuses to kill the bull at the end. He and Joaquin both love Maria, but become pawns in the bickering of deities Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) in an adventure that spans the Land of the Remembered and Land of the Forgotten in the afterlife.

The bets La Muerte and Xibalba make are the same as any Greek fable, or some books of Christianity too. Gods meddling with mortals. What’s cool is discussing death and morality in a celebratory way, and suggesting that death is okay as long as you’re remembered. A crisis approaches the town of San Angel that would threaten to wipe out the memories of all who lived there, and the loss of a legacy is more poignant than the loss of a life. Of course, that’s all easy to digest if all your departed loved ones are happy cartoons in a colorful afterlife you can visit.

The characters look like wooden puppets, and their faces age so the elderly are full of knots and splinters. You can see the joints in Maria’s shoulders, wearing low cut dresses, and everyone’s knuckles. That is a wonderfully whimsical approach to making computer animation look unique, making it look a little bit like stop motion really and there’s no denying this portrayal of the afterlife owes a bit to Tim Burton, even if it is from the Mexican perspective. The ReelFX logo should never be shown in 3D though. That aggressive little bit of animation physically hurts. Luckily the rest of the movie is mild.

Us animal lovers can easily applaud Manolo’s compassion for the bulls. He’s not only facing parental pressure to be a butcher, but his whole society is telling him be a man, fight for Maria. Bravo for taking on the Latin machismo in a kids’ film. That’s a way to reach the next generation and show them a woman isn’t going to be impressed by how many men you can beat up for her.

The one ambitious thread that really doesn’t go anywhere is the film’s feminism. Maria is continually rebellious against being objectified and possessive men, but all this ultimately amounts to is she knows Kung Fu and fencing so she can fight as well as the men. It’s great that the men are taught to be respectful and individual, but the woman is underserved. To be fair, Joaquin is the usual Channing Tatum lovable doofus character too, but he has a poignant arc.

Manolo sings to Maria, a mix of pop hits rendered in historical Mexican mariachi style, and some original songs. The covers are cute and the originals get you in the heart. It’s all in good fun, just as the statement that Mexico is the center of the universe is cute.

Just writing this review I realize that all the elements of The Book of Life are a bit unwieldy to summarize. I’d forgotten that by the time I got to the satisfying ending. It really pays off the themes of destiny, individuality, forgiveness and legacy and made me emotional. But yeah, getting there does take a whole lot of clunky plot and exposition.

Rating: Dollar Theater