One-man studio Guillermo del Toro may have only produced this quality slice of kiddie-bait, but his fingerprints are all over every one of its gorgeously rendered pixels. As befits an animation from the Pacific Rim auteur, it’s at once a charming and snappy romp, a riot of inventive design, and – most unexpectedly – a neat bluffer’s guide to certain less well-known elements of Mexican folklore.
The Book Of Life brings us not one but two personifications of death: Mexican folk spirits La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) – demi-gods locked in an eternal, somewhat flirtatious duel over who gets to rule the underworld. They’re triumphs of character design, coming across like refugees from Hellboy II but unlikely to frighten the young ones.
The earthbound plotline over which our two gods make sport offers more cause for concern. There’s a love triangle between three kids-movie staples: plucky romantic lacking in confidence (Diego Luna’s Manolo), spunky heroine (Zoe Saldana’s Maria), and a brash braggart (Channing Tatum’s Joaquin). Care to place bets on the outcome? The starry, energetic voice work does its bit, but with songs so insipid they make Dido sound like slayer, they have a tall mountain to climb.
No matter: even the real world created here makes most other ‘tooners look imaginatively crippled, and once Manolo is trapped in the underworld, desperately trying to return to his love, the film goes up several notches from even there. A group of his ancestors are played by everybody from Danny Trejo to Plácido Domingo, and each a beautifully detailed creation in their own right – sporting a kind of zombie-mariachi chic.
Their environment is even better, the afterlife presented as a hallucinogenic fiesta that lasts as long as someone is remembered. Once Ice Cube shows up as a cosmic first cause, it’s long become clear The Book of Life is one of the animated pleasures of the year.