In Ann Arbor, a movie like “The Book of Life” is always going to be on the chopping block. The question on our minds was whether it would appropriate Mexican culture for Western audiences. But in truth, the movie is a charming and colorful tribute to Hispanic culture.

The Book of Life

A
Rave and Quality 16
20th Century Fox

In a screenplay co-written by director Jorge R. Gutierrez (“El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”), a young man named Manolo (Diego Luna, “Casa de mi Padre”) is torn between his duty to honor his family’s legacy as a bullfighter and his love of the guitar. His best friend, Joaquin (Channing Tatum, “22 Jump Street”), is a macho soldier whose father was a fallen general. Both boys live under the shadows of their fathers. The movie revolves around “Manolo versus Joaquin for the hand of Maria,” a crass prostitute (Zoe Saldana, “Avatar”) who is the most famous female character in Miguel de Cervante’s work.

Fantastic figures from Hispanic folklore become involved in the game. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo, “No Good Deed”) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”) are the rulers of the two underworlds. La Muerte bets that Manolo will win Maria, and Xibalba bets that Joaquin will. What follows is a classic high-stakes Mexican standoff, in which the tides rise and fall in favor of our hero, Manolo. He wins our hearts over as a young boy, when he gives bread to an old beggar as his family is gathered around his late mother’s grave on the Day of the Dead. She prays that his heart be “always pure and good,” a prayer that comes full circle.

Maria, when she leaves for Spain at the start of the story, gives him a guitar that reads “Always play from the heart.” Manolo follows that message without fail. The songs he sings are touchingly poetic, in classic mariachi style. He sings to Maria in the moonlight as she watches from the balcony, impressed but always so elegant. When he leans in for a kiss, she turns him away. “Did you think it was going to be that easy?” she says playfully.

Though Maria respects her father’s wishes and her family’s traditional values, she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. She challenges her expected role as a cook and a cleaner. In her time in Spain, we learn that she has learned “Art, music, books!” Not least surprising is that they seem to have taught her kung-fu at an eighteenth-century Spanish convent (co-writer Doug Langdale did work on TV’s “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness”). All told, if the audience can find but one flaw in the story, it’s that characters like Maria do not have satisfying arcs. As much of a role model as she is, she doesn’t evolve over the course of the story. She is not like Manolo, who challenges the tradition that “Music is not worthy of a Sanchez bullfigher,” refuses to kill the bulls he is made to fight and in doing so becomes the greatest bullfighter in the Sanchez line.

The film should be appreciated not for the arcs of its individual characters, but for its color and the breathtaking scope of its storylines and themes. The film speaks to bullfighting, mariachi, feminism, death, camaraderie, love, tradition, honor, family, courage, sincerity, all warped so dazzlingly together in a memorable coming-of-age story … which may, admittedly, be a little too dazzling for some. We are given spectacular tours of Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. Ice Cube (“Are We There Yet?”) adds a comedic but very symbolic role as the Candle-Maker and the keeper of the Book of Life. He does for “The Book of Life” a touch of what Robin Williams did for “Aladdin” as Genie. Every life is a candle, he explains, and when a life is taken away, its candle is put out. There is depth in every symbol of the film, for audiences of all ages.

No children’s movie should be so ambitious, and yet “The Book of Life” seems to have pulled it off. Producer Guillermo del Toro does well, as is his trademark style, to bring up macabre themes like death with a young audience. With Halloween coming up, we lose sight of the real significance of the holiday, its roots in the memory of the loved ones who have left us.

Perhaps the film’s narrative success lies in its framing the story of Manolo and Joaquin within a field trip to a museum. The teacher shows the white American school kids the Book of Life and animates the stories with wooden figurines, a new twist on animation informed by traditional Mexican aesthetics. Every now and then we take an amusing break from the story, and the kids make a comment like “What is it with Mexicans and death?”

And then we resume in the most poetic of ways … “As the sky cried with rain…”

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