Animation fans may face a tough choice at the multiplex this weekend. On some screens, you’ll find the whimsical, old-school animation of the stop-action feature “The Boxtrolls.” Set in a subterranean world, that movie tells the story of creatures who live, turtle-like, inside cardboard boxes. Opening on other screens, you’ll find the somewhat less whimsical, but even more eye-popping “The Book of Life,” which uses CGI to raise the dead.
Inspired by Mexican Day of the Dead figurines — rendered in this movie as hand-carved wooden skeleton dolls — the visually stunning film takes place partly in a kind of underworld, presenting the afterlife as a candy-colored wonderland styled after such festive ghoulishness as the traditional calaveras — or elaborately decorated skull candies — associated with the Mexican holiday.
“What is it with Mexicans and death?” a character asks.
That’s a reasonable query for those not familiar with south-of-the-border folklore, or its fixation on the afterlife. The answer, as presented here, is ultimately less frightening, and a lot more fun, than it seems, despite the movie’s morbid premise. “The Book of Life,” in other words, is about as scary as Halloween.
The main story concerns a love triangle among three best friends. Manolo (voice of Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are both smitten with Maria (Zoe Saldana), the beautiful young woman with whom they grew up. Sensitive Manolo comes from a long line of bullfighters, but aspires to be a mariachi musician; Joaquin is a swaggering military hero.
Whom will Maria pick? Her decision suddenly becomes a lot easier when Manolo is killed by a poisonous snake, the collateral victim of a rivalry between the sparring rulers of two supernatural realms: La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), Queen of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), King of the Land of the Forgotten.
Although La Muerte’s name literally means “Death,” she’s no Grim Reaper. The Land of the Remembered is a joyous place, filled with happy spirits kept alive in the memories of those they left behind. Xibalba — a personification of the Mayan concept of hell — has a lot less to be jolly about. He presides over the realm of the unremembered dead. When La Muerte finds out that Xibalba took Manolo’s life by subterfuge, in a gambit to unseat La Muerte and take over her happier kingdom, our hero is granted a temporary reprieve, and one last chance to win back Maria’s hand (and his life).
The plot is a bit complicated, the love triangle somewhat stale and the humor too heavily reliant on cornball gags and silly pop songs. But the movie makes up for its minor deficiencies with its gorgeous good looks and charmingly otherworldly worldview, which holds death not as an end, but simply the beginning of another state of being. There’s one especially lovely image, expressed by a deity called the Candle Maker (Ice Cube), that imagines humans souls as flickering flames. It is not death that extinguishes them, but the passing from memory.
As rendered in 3-D, that image takes on a kind of concrete poetry. It’s comforting, in a way.
“The Book of Life” may use state-of-the-art animation, but it derives its strength from the wisdom of antiquity. It only looks new, but it’s as old as life (and death) itself.
★ ★ ★
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild action, brief scatological humor and thematic material related to mortality. 94 minutes.