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The Book of Life: a dark, serious children's animation set in the Mexican underworld

Whenever death makes itself known in children's films, it tends to remain rather abstract – the expositional death of the mother and/or father, the hypothetical mortal peril that the bad guy will enact if he gets his way. Not so in The Book of Life, an alarmingly morbid animated tale of mythical proportions that tackles death head-on, attempting to explore big ideas with bucket loads of ingenuity, but falls down with some more basic goals.

The story is rather convoluted from the get go, when an upbeat museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) leads a group of problem children into an extravagant museum display and begins to tell them a legendary story. She recounts a wager made between La Muerte – governor of the Land of the Remembered – and Xibalba – who rules the Land of the Forgotten – on the Day of the Dead festival in the village of San Angel. The two spirits see two young boys, Manolo and Joaquin, competing for the love of Maria, and bet which boy will eventually have her hand in marriage (in exchange for power over the other’s underworld realm). When the three children are reunited as adults, Manolo (Diego Luna) must battle against the wishes of his father, the forces of death, and childhood pal Joaquin (Channing Tatum) to live the life he wants and to win Maria’s (Zoe Saldana) love.

This lively trip into Mexican folklore is chock full of the kind of originality that’s been sorely lacking in American animation at least since Pixar gave us Up six years ago. Director Jorge Guiterrez crafts the village of San Angel and the various underworld realms with breathtaking precision, with the utterly breathtaking animation being some of the most beautiful in recent memory from any part of the world. The colours are unrelenting, the character design is stunning and it's all consistently inventive enough that the visuals are the unequivocal highlight of the film. The film, surprisingly, becomes musical enough to put Disney to shame, albeit by way of original songs and some utterly bizarre choices for covers – including Radiohead, Rod Stewart and Mumford & Sons – popping up at opportune moments and provide the film’s most upbeat moments.

But unusually for a film ostensibly aimed at children, it’s relatively laugh free – caught up in the dramatics of romance and integrity and scaling the depths of the netherworld. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a children’s film being a little more serious, but it feels oddly out of place that such a bright and beautiful film doesn't provide more in terms of levity (at least, until Ice Cube shows up as 'The Candlemaker').

And boy, does The Book of Life get dark. With death as the central mechanic for the plot, how could it not? But when the film’s climax involves an explicit suicide bombing, it becomes very clear that this is perhaps not a completely family friendly tale. The story is also extremely convoluted, with the laboured framing device providing a wholly unnecessary distraction from an already complex folk story that would be perfectly complete on its own. We don’t learn that Manolo is indeed our main character until at least halfway through the film, dragging its feet in the exposition and ultimately compressing too many events and themes into the back end.

It won't provide much in the way of competition for school holiday juggernauts Home and Cinderella, but The Book of Life's love letter to Mexican culture certainly provided a more interesting alternative to the mainstream children's animation we've seen of late – despite whatever its flaws may be.

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