The Land of the Remembered, ruled by a stitch-lipped La Muerte, raven-haired beneath a sombrero ringed with lit candles; The Land of the Forgotten, ruled by her foe and love, the snow-bearded, gap-toothed, green-glowing Xibalba. The Land of the Remembered, bursting with festive colours and piñata papier-mâché floats and the happy spirits of ancestors, reunited, all candle-glow eyes and smiling wooden faces. And the blockish marionettes of San Angel’s Manolo and Joaquin, all chiselled faces and shoulders like epaulettes and fingers like bony joints.
These are the wonders of Jorge Gutierrez’s Day of the Dead animated-feature The Book of Life, best when it dives deep into Mexican myth and legend. (World Lit 101 students may notice faint overlaps with Orpheus and Eurydice, Theseus and the underworld scenes in Greek and Roman epics.) But when, too often, it gets Hollywooden—sexy-girl figures, love-story moments, pop songs—this afterlife odyssey blends and blands out much of its foreign flavour.
After Xibalba, eager to switch kingdoms, convinces La Muerte to make a wager on whether the musician Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) or the soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum) will marry Maria (Zoe Saldana), the lord of the unremembered dead cheats, killing Manolo—can he return from beyond to win his lady love and vanquish the big-bad-bandit Chakal?
The frame story—a museum guide tells this tale to jaded city kids today—seems unnecessary but serves as a buffer for youngsters who might get spooked by the story’s darker shades and neatly bridges past and present at the end. San Angel’s comic relief—pigs, a trio of nuns, a mariachi band—doesn’t overstay its whimsical welcome, and there are some strikingly strange touches, from Radiohead’s “Creep” strummed out in a bullring to Manolo’s many matador ancestors.
But most of the songs are contemp-American pop-pap; Maria, for all her supposed independence, is drawn like a Barbie with Bambi eyes; the underworld sequence soon turns video-gamey. And there’s no flashing flourish of an estocada (death-blow for a bull) at the end—after its Día de Muertos focus on remembering one’s ancestors (Manolo’s helped by family present and passed), the story falls on its sword, ending with a clichéd “you can write your own story” moral straight out of the American Dream playbook.