“It’s the classic mortal dilemma, two boys in love with the same girl.” So agree the two deities, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), as they observe three children at play. “Classic” is one word for it. You might also call it old, a point underlined when the girl, Maria (voiced by Genesis Ochoa as a child, Zoe Saldana as an adult), steps into the middle of the boys’ argument over her to declare, “I belong to no one.”
Right. Still, the boys will go on in The Book of Life to pursue their possessive claims, each embodying an awfully regular option: Joaquin (Elias Garza, then Channing Tatum) is a jock and Manolo (Emil-Bastien Bouffard, then Diego Luna) an artist, guitar in hand. The contest is granted extra framing in this animated feature, the first directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, as El Muerte and Xibalba place bets on which boy will win the girl. The winner of the bet gets to rule over the Land of the Remembered, the much preferred of two realms where spirits go after death. Where the dead who are remembered wear colorful outfits and enjoy what looks like an endless party, those cast off to the Land of the Forgotten look just that, gray and bony and mopey.
The bet allows El Muerte and Xibalba to pop up repeatedly as the kids more or less live their lives, sparring with one another over who best understands what girls want. They’re not the only observers, however, as The Book of Life begins with yet another framing layer, provided by the titular tome, housed in a museum, initially reviled by a set of children delivered by school bus for the ritual rehabilitation known as detention. These students, variously shaped and sized, are all clever and cynical, certainly resistant to any sort of lessons offered in a museum. They’re also unprepared for the guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) who takes up the challenge: she leads them into a back room where she proceeds to tell them the story in the book, the one about Maria and Joaquin and Manolo, the spirit deities, and Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
This framing device makes for still more observers popping up, as the kids complain about plot turns or urge Mary Beth to continue. She does so, underscoring Maria’s gently insistent rebellion against traditions held dear by her father, the big-chested general Posada (Carlos Alazraqui), who is, more often than not, backed up by his mother (Grey DeLisle), hunched over in her wheelchair, glasses perched on her nose and knitting needles in constant motion. Maria’s attitude appeals to all the kids listening, who sympathize with her efforts to educate her dad as well as the boys, who continue to posture and puff up whenever they see her.
That’s not to say Maria is immune to Manolo’s charms (when her dad sends her off to boarding school for a few years, she gifts Manolo with a guitar inscribed, “Always play from the heart”) or that she doesn’t understand the uses of Joaquin’s own developing military skills (or at least the many medals he wears so as to impress friends and enemies alike).
Still, Maria resists when her dad prods her to marry Joaquin, whom he likes to call “the son I never had.” The boys both have legacies to face, Joaquin’s father a war hero who died at the hands of the big mechanical-looking bully called Chakal (Dan Navarro) and Manolo’s a legendary matador, Carlos Sanchez (Hector Elizondo) who does his best to stomp out his son’s artistic inclinations.
Manolo offers a familiar alternative model of masculinity: he writes songs and sings under Maria’s balcony, and also shows some smooth moves in the bullfighting arena. He inspires Maria and infuriates his dad when he refuses to kill the bull. Manolo’s place in his world is thus perpetually tenuous, as he values the family tradition (singing about the many bullfighting Sanchezes who came before him), but also rejects it, as he wants to marry (or maybe possess) Maria, but he’s not thrilled about fighting for her, as his doting dead mother (Ana de la Regueraand) advises.
Manolo reunites with that dead mother during his own adventure as a spirit, yet another complication brought on by the ongoing contest between El Muerte and Xibalba. In the Land of the Remembered, Manolo finds happy spirits, yet he yearns to return to the land of the living to pursue Maria. Just so, he follows a series of directives outlined by the Candlemaker who, as voiced by Ice Cube, is as anomalous as you might expect.
The out-of-place Candlemaker incarnates the chaotic effort of The Book of Life to pull together an entertainment that might appeal to everyone imaginable, and probably some consumers not even imagined. This boy-band approach to conjuring entertainment is part educational (good for kids everywhere to know about the Day of the Dead, good for them to hear Ice Cube’s voice, even if they don’t get his “It was a good day of the dead” joke) and part abjectly commercial, as if the studio okayed the project as long as the makers — who include the admirably innovative artist and producer Guillermo del Toro — promised to draw a conventional (white, English-speaking, middle-classish) audience as well as those children who might know at least part of the base storyline already. While the boy-band approach is as cynical here as when applied to N’Sync and One Direction, we might hope that del Toro and his expanding creative team use any possible success with it to challenge a slew of classic mortal dilemmas.