It’s a legit question in light of the content of a film that takes place in and around the Day of the Dead, a national bank holiday in Mexico. “Is that National Zombie Day?” asks the same kid.
No it isn’t. Instead its refreshingly dark but delightful story based on folklore with sumptuous visuals and good messages about family, fate and gender dynamics.
The story begins with a bet between spirits La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) on who will win the heart of the beautiful Maria (Zoe Saldana), warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum) or bullfighting musician Manolo (Diego Luna). The stakes are high. If she marries Joaquin the devious Xibalba will rule in the Land of the Remembered, while La Muerte will be banished to the Land of the Forgotten. As part of a double cross Manolo is plunged into the underworld, only to have to fight his way back to his hometown and the woman he loves.
“Finding Nemo” and “Bambi” aside, mortality is not a big topic in children’s movies. “Book of Life,” however, embraces it; weaving an entrancing story that toggles back-and-forth between the land of the living and dead. It celebrates the vibrancy of the Day of the Dead celebrations, complete with skeletons in dazzlingly costumes and a character with a disembodied head. “The Walking Dead” this ain’t.
For some children the demonic bulls and Xibalba’s grandly goth appearance might be the stuff of nightmares, but the fanciful creations are for the most part kid friendly in a “Nightmare Before Christmas” kind of way.
For parents the scariest thing about the movie may be the appropriation of songs by Mumford & Sons and Radiohead for a kid’s movie.
Director Jorge R. Gutierrez updates traditional mythology with modern storytelling, making sure that the movie moves along at the speed of light. It occasionally feels a bit too jam-packed, with a noisy finale that isn’t nearly as interesting or inventive as the unconventional stuff that came before it, but the pandering to predictability in the final moments doesn’t diminish “Book of Life’s” impact as a beautifully crafted fantasy.