After wading through “Fury,” “Dracula Untold” and other movies that seem to exist purely in a world of blues, grays or browns, it’s refreshing to be bombarded with color.
“The Book of Life,” an energetic animated film rife with Mexican folklore, is brimming with visual delights. The movie commands color so effectively that it’s easy to forgive some narrative hyperactivity.
The family-friendly story begins in present day, where a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) offers a closing tour to discipline-challenged schoolchildren. Explaining how “Mexico is the center of the universe,” she directs their wandering attention to a tabletop display honoring the Day of the Dead and to a book she promises will draw their interest.
“This book holds many truths, some of which are actually true,” she says.
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Her tale involves a wager between the majestic La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the vibrant Land of the Remembered, and her slippery husband, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who reigns in the dreary Land of the Forgotten. Eager to swap realms, Xibalba sets up a wager involving a trio of childhood friends they’ve been observing: Manolo, Joaquin and Maria.
La Muerte bets that the guitar-playing Manolo will grow up to marry the headstrong Maria. Xibalba picks the danger-loving Joaquin. But he secretly stacks the odds by giving the boy a medal that protects him from injury and death.
Maria heads off to study abroad. When she returns as an adult (Zoe Saldana), she finds Manolo (Diego Luna) pushed into a bullfighting career — as is his family’s tradition — even though he would rather sing. Meanwhile, the smug Joaquin (Channing Tatum) has become a decorated soldier, thanks to his hidden good luck charm.
Though more enamored with Manolo, Maria is pressured into marrying Joaquin to ensure he will stick around to defend their town against the brutal bandit Chakal (Dan Navarro).
Trips to the underworld, double-crosses and some occasionally inspired music (such as a flamenco version of Radiohead’s “Creep” performed in a bullring) ensue. Although directed by rookie Jorge R. Gutierrez, the project bears the unmistakable thumbprint of producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), with its themes of adolescent expectations and grotesque alternate worlds whose mystical denizens intersect with our own.
Many of the best bits involve the battle of Manolo and Joaquin — the always relevant artiste-vs.-jock impasse. Joaquin is all mustache and medals — one of which, he explains, is for having the most medals. Manolo is all coiffed soul-searching, especially when tasked with slaying a bull in a packed arena.
“Kids today,” says his feisty grandma (Grey DeLisle). “With their long hair and not killing stuff.”
While the abundance of characters makes the story quite busy, the imagery keeps things engaging. The guide begins her tale using wooden figurines, so when the action shifts to these characters, they retain the same handmade, jointed features.
The character designs offer one slick detail after another, from the table-umbrella-sized sombrero of La Muerte to the red skull pupils of Xibalba. Just when the movie seems to have exhausted its visual charms, Manolo visits the Land of the Remembered, which proves even more stunning than what proceeded it.
The voice work is competent except for one jarring casting choice. Ice Cube turns up as the Candle Maker, a somewhat undefined bigwig in this pantheon who apparently oversees the living humans. Why does a Mexico-themed saga need a South Central L.A. rapper to voice one of its main deities? If the answer is to be distracting, then misión cumplida.
‘THE BOOK OF LIFE’
Rated PG | Time: 1:35
3-D OR NOT 3-D
The handsome 3-D helps give the dense visuals some breathing room.
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