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"THE BOOK OF LIFE"
(2014) (voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Computer Animated Dramedy: Two men try to win the heart of a young woman in a Mexican town, unaware that two deities have put a wager on who will prevail.
PLOT:
In the Mexican town of San Angel, there's the Land of the Living where everyday people reside, including kids Manolo, Joaquin and Maria. There's also the Land of the Remembered where the dearly departed reside as long as someone in the Land of the Living still remembers them. If not, they end up as desperate souls in the Land of the Forgotten.

Two ancient gods -- La Muerte (voice of KATE DEL CASTILLO), who oversees the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (voice of RON PERLMAN), who rules the Land of the Forgotten -- are known for making wagers and their latest concerns whether Manolo or Joaquin will win over Maria. Xibalba secretly stacks the odds in his favor, but when Maria's father sends her off to school to learn to be a lady, it will be years before the bet is settled.

When Maria (voice of ZOE SALDANA) finally returns as a young woman, she draws the eyes of many, but especially Manolo (voice of DIEGO LUNA) and Joaquin (voice of CHANNING TATUM). While the latter thinks his service as an honored soldier will impress her in the manner of his late father's heroic soldier status, Manolo doesn't want to be a bull fighter like his father, Carlos (voice of HECTOR ELIZONDO). Instead, he'd like to a mariachi singer and tries to impress Maria through song.

When that appears to be working its charms, Xibalba sets out to sabotage the budding romance, ultimately resulting in Manolo ending up in the Land of the Remembered where he uses the help of the Candle Maker (voice of ICE CUBE) to find La Muerte in hopes of finding Maria who he also believes is there. But she's still back up top, facing the notion of having to marry Joaquin, all to help ensure that he'll defend the town against the dreaded and formidable villain Chakal (DAN NAVARRO).

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In the world of reviewing movies, there are films that are so bad that you wish you could travel back in time and tell yourself not to enter the theater. Short of that, you swear never to cast your eyes upon such travesties again. Then there are mediocre pics that won't make your skin crawl or burn important cranial neurons, but don't deserve or warrant a second look. And then there are those films that are either so good or so chock full of detail that they practically beg another look. And that's so that you can take everything in again but also catch things you might have missed the first time around due to the intricacies of what appears up on the screen.

The computer-animated adventure comedy "The Book of Life" is one of those latter films. While it might not be brilliant from start to finish and contains some standard and all-too familiar animated movie storytelling and related character elements (including the big-eyed, spunky girl turned young heroine who bucks societal conventions), I challenge anyone to find a more visually appealing animated film filled with so much detail that one's bound to miss something in just above every frame that flashes by.

And despite some of that familiarity, writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale have infused the offering with enough Mexican atmosphere, traditions and flair that the 95-some minute offering feels completely fresh, highly entertaining and decidedly infectious in its appeal. The story is told in bookend fashion with occasional contemporary interludes as a museum tour guide tells a small group of school kids the titular flashback tale of those in the small Mexican town of San Angel where three worlds coexist.

There's the land of the living, where our three main characters -- Maria, Manolo and Joaquin -- exist; the land of the remembered, where those who've passed on exist in a perpetual state of bliss as long as there are people in the land of the living who remember them; and finally the land of the forgotten who've become lost and depressed souls due to the fact that there's no one left living to recall them.

The last two worlds are ruled by deities who enjoy making bets about how things will turn out in the land of the living, and they've set their wager-based sights on our three kids, with La Muerte betting that Maria will end up with Manolo, while Xibalba thinks it will be Joaquin, and does his best to make that happen. The three are unaware of the bet and grow up into young adults who must deal with parental expectations or legends.

Maria isn't girlie enough for her father, Joaquin has big boots to fill if he's to match the heroism of his late soldier father, and Manolo is a disappointment to his father who comes from a very long line of bullfighters. At the same time, both men -- who are also close friends -- are romantically interested in Maria and thus set out to impress her. Along the way and sort of in the same vein, the filmmakers go the "Moulin Rouge!" route by throwing covers of past popular songs into the mix, sung by the characters (such as Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You," Radiohead's "Creep," Mumford and Sons' "I Will Wait" and Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" among others).

There are original songs as well -- courtesy of Gustavo Santaolalla -- that could earn Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, including "No Matter Where You Are" performed by Us the Duo. All of them are icing on the top of this delicious offering that should put a smile on the face of most anyone who sees it, while also warming the heart via its themes of being your own person, having real courage, and celebrating one's heritage and family members and ancestors who've passed on.

Vocal work from the likes of Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman and Kate Del Castillo, among others, is top-notch, but it's the film's colorful and detailed look that will be etched in the minds of many a viewer long after seeing the flick. I can't wait to see it again just to soak in the visuals another time and catch all of the various details I'm sure I missed the first time around. "The Book of Life" is indeed full of life (and even death, in a fun way) and thus rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 11, 2014 / Posted October 17, 2014


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