It's nearing closing time at the museum and the tour guide is looking forward to a rest until a new bus pulls up containing five kids who look like trouble to him. He is about to resign himself to dragging them around the establishment when they really are not interested when someone appears to save him, his colleague Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) who almost immediately fascinates them by showing off a door in the outside wall that is hidden to the naked eye thanks to an optical illusion. She then escorts them inside where they end up in a Mexican room which houses many treasures from Central America, but it is a particular tome she wishes them to hear about...
That'll be the book of life, then, in a cartoon produced by Mexico's most famous filmmaker, possibly of all time, Guillermo del Toro, which wholeheartedly embraced the culture of its homeland, something shared by the director Jorge R. Gutiérrez and many of the talents involved. In spite of being an American film from an American studio, which might explain why we were saddled with the frequent cutaways to the white kids learning about the legends Mary Beth is relating, a device which had the unfortunate effect of pandering to the non-Mexican audience when if they had just let the story stand on its own two feet they might have had an experience more stimulating.
That actual story was of Manolo (Diego Luna), who when he was a little boy was in love with Maria (Zoe Saldana), but his best friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum) felt the same way. She had to choose eventually, and this gives two Mexican spiritual entities an idea: the Lord of the Forgotten Dead (Ron Perlman) bets the Lady of the Remembered Dead (Kate del Castillo) that Joaquin will go off with Maria, and she bets on Manolo, with the promise that if she loses, they will swap realms since the Lord is so sick of his depressing existence. But he is a mischievous sort, and will contrive to have things go his way by fair means or foul, which sounds as if we're in for a high stakes adventure with the romance at the heart of it.
Well, it sounds like that but what you got was a hyperkinetic race through the film's idea of updating various traditions which not only did not pause for breath, but in the process managed to gloss over any sense of gravitas that might have conjured up a story of depth and colour. Oh, it was colourful enough visually, if anything the imagery was too busy to take in as it hurtled by, like taking a sightseeing trip at supersonic speed, but with everything presented in that flippant, don't tax the kiddies too much fashion it was difficult to latch onto anything approximating a genuine emotion, no matter that there were indications we were intended to run the gamut between laughter, tears and excitement. If it had just calmed down a bit then we might have appreciated it more.
Obviously a spot of frenetics doesn't go amiss when making an animation, especially one aimed at family audiences, but here it was as if the accelerator had been stuck deliberately and chaos was the result. Not helping was the sense that Del Toro had instructed his team to make up a list of everything Mexican they could think of and throw it all into the mix no matter if it succeeded, or even fitted, at all. Therefore one minute Manolo is a musician whose father wants him to be a bullfighter in the family tradition, the next we are in the underworld getting a crash course in what Mexicans believe the afterlife could possibly be like, and the results are a mishmash peppered with Mariachi versions of English language pop hits, or even Plácido Domingo showing up long enough to hit a high note or two. But the biggest problem was, if when you died you weren't really dead and could more or less continue as you had, what was the big deal about the whole premise of the movie? With characters firing off irreverent but bland quips every minute, it did seem very inconsequential. Music by Gustavo Santaolalla.