Many great movies are meticulous, laser-focused affairs, films that have a mission statement that they zero in on early and hew to from the first frame to the last, using every facet of the script, visuals and performances to reinforce this single imparted truth. This can be especially helpful with family films meant for a wide child audience, allowing a movie to be accessible and stimulating to a young audience in a "digestible" manner.
And when properly executed, it works like gangbusters. The environmentalism of Miyazaki, the self-actualization of Brad Bird, the praises of true love through acceptance in Frozen or Beauty & the Beast, or the message of friendship until the end of the Toy Story films - the results speak for themselves.
But rules are made to be broken. The Book of Life takes a different approach. And while the result isn't the sort of richly-crafted masterpiece of message, tone, and perfect plotting seen in these previously-mentioned cinematic titans, it creates a beautifully unwieldy magic all its own.
The Book of Life begins with a tour through a museum, a secret revelation from an arresting tour guide to a group of rowdy kids concerning the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead. Pulling back the curtain on a world of mysticism, history, and mythology, the film moves from this frame story to a prelude wherein La Muerte, ruler of the celebrated Land of the Remembered, makes a fateful wager with Xibalba, ruler of the desolate Land of the Forgotten.
The bet? Which of two boys - one a stalwart son of a heroic soldier and the other a sensitive musician from a long line of bull fighters - the fierce and passionate Maria will one day choose to marry. As is often the case with gods and magic and powers of the heart, this is a long game, with La Muerte and Xibabla having a love/hate history that stretches back centuries and stakes that won't come fully into play for decades. Maria is sent away from her home village, returning to find that Manolo the bull fighter and Joaquin the soldier have grown to both be courageous young men, even more intent on proving themselves worthy of her love.
One of the first things that The Book of Life does right is handling the potential problems of a love triangle with sensitivity and inventive character. Maria is never objectified (this film takes a couple deliberate measures to subvert expectations about female "roles" in these sorts of stories, and actually creates a tale revolving around - and even being controlled by - powerful, well-defined women). Additionally, both male leads are carefully-drawn "good" guys in slightly different ways (both reacting differently to how their family's legacy over-shadows their own deeds). And while the film positions conflicts between the friends as obstacles to the story, it never takes the easy road of making Joaquin or Manolo the "bad guy" or the "good guy" for the sake of expediency.
This unwillingness to simplify in the name of a cleaner plot permeates the entire film - messages of being true to yourself and love, of family and loyalty, of mercy and compassion and courage and playing fair all get thrown into a game of love, death, resurrection, and heroic last stands rallying simple folk against bandit hordes.
Yeah, it gets to be a lot.
More often than not, the film feels like the product of a child set loose in a grocery store, careening through the isles at breakneck speed and throwing everything that looks worth grabbing into an over-stuffed cart. The Book of Life spends quick minutes on plot threads or character journeys that other films would devote entire acts (or, indeed, whole films) to exploring, grabbing from sources like the mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice, Achilles, more modern folklore, and even Mexican history with equal abandon. There's a feeling about the proceedings that if the whole affair took any time from its breakneck pace to slow or stop, it would topple over in a gargantuan mess.
Instead, it races forward, often balanced on little more than raw enthusiasm and unironic devotion to the truth of its characters. The Book of Life is a messy hodgepodge of hyper-kinetic visual gags, roaring action sequences, themed musical riffs on popular songs, and even surprisingly effective tragic dramatic turns (this film is unapologetic in how it deals out death, even while glorifying what comes after). But somehow, it works.
All the world is in stories, the film opines, and your story is your own to write. And from the mix of distinctive animation styles (hand-carved 3D puppets acting out the "clean"-but-exaggerated 3D frame story interspersed with 2D vignettes) to the inventively careening story, The Book of Life takes supreme joy in creating a tale made from a mixture of the familiar that winds up all its own. Even as the big beating heart is displayed proudly on the sleeve for all to see, the film is far from perfect. It may at times come off as uneven and disjointed and a little crazy.
But that's life, really, and that's its own kind of perfect.