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The Book of Life - review

Mar 31, 2015 Film & TV

To this Pakeha-raised Catholic, Mexico’s Day of the Dead always seemed to me like the best, most radical celebration of life. Where we had the rather dour All Souls Day, they had families busting into cemeteries to party with their dearly departed, bringing noise and colour and all those things that we were too uptight to dare try in a graveyard.

The Book of Life, Jorge Guiterrez’s gorgeous animated film, is a lovely chance for young audiences to explore the subject of death without the grimness usually attached.

The filmmakers (Guillermo del Toro produced) cleverly package the story as a life lesson for a group of sulky detention kids who have to spend a day at the museum. A guide (Christina Applegate) takes pity on them, sneaks the children into a Mexican trinkets room and culturesplains the Day of the Dead to them (and for us).

There’s La Muerte, who rules the Land of the Remembered; her hubby, Xibalba, is in charge of the lesser-populated Land of the Forgotten. Negotiating between them is a bearded underworld character known as Candlestick Maker, voiced by Ice Cube.

Up on the mortal plain, there’s sweet Manolo (Diego Luna), the youngest member of a matador family, who would rather strum his guitar than face a bull. Hunky Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is his best friend, the son of a military hero; he meets a dodgy dude in a mausoleum and swaps a loaf of bread for a magic brooch. And there’s Maria (Zoe Saldana), their love interest who, in the recent tradition of animated heroines, has beauty and brains! There’s also a scary bandit named Chacal, a cute piglet, singing nuns, and a trio of drunken mariachi musicians who break out into Rod Stewart songs.

The story finally gets started when La Meurte and Xibalba make a bet about which of the boys will win Maria’s hand. The below-ground winner will get to rule the way-more-bueno Land of the Remembered.

If only this film had come out here last November as it did elsewhere, instead of, um, at Easter. If only the central love triangle was less predictable. If only the requisite pop soundtrack was better curated (though having Radiohead’s “Creep” in the same film as Placido Domingo is pretty cool). If only they had trimmed some of the characters and frenetic plot points to create the brain space to enjoy the divine visuals. This film is a beauty, from every tiny detail of the marionette-style characters to a visual thrill-ride into the afterlife (a scene that 3D was made for — a feverish colour explosion, a carnival of crazy, a heavenly hallucination).

Watch The Book of Life in 3D, and then take the kids to the Manukau Memorial Gardens, a place as close in radiance to the Land of the Remembered as you’ll find in our neighbourhood.


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