12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself in a bit of a pickle. His whole shoe-making family hates music with a passion, led by his curmudgeon grandmother (Rene Victor). Why the hate? It seems that the patriarch of the Rivera family, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), abandoned his family to live his dream of being a musician/movie superstar. So reviled is this man that even his face has been torn from the family photo. Only his daughter, Coco, is alive, but she’s slowly slipping away due to her advanced age.
Miguel, meanwhile, holds a secret obsession with de la Cruz and wants to sing & play just like him, even though he’s forbade to do so. A chance talent show during the Dia de los Muertos celebration is his chance to shine, but he needs a guitar first. Stealing his great-great-grandfather’s from his impressive mausoleum, he strikes a cord and, faster than you can say Book of Life, Miguel and his weird dog, Dante, are zapped into the world of the dead, complete with living, talking skeletons. Meeting up with his deceased relatives, they escort Miguel over the massive marigold flower bridge into the Land of the Dead to get answers about Miguel’s unusual appearance in their world.
Miguel finds his great-great-grandmother, Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who hates the whole music thing as well. She can send Miguel back to the living world, BUT he’ll have to promise to never play music ever again! Geez, this lady has issues! Anyway Miguel, with music in his soul, refuses to leave (but he’ll have to soon, ’cause he’s slowly turning into a skeleton, y’see), so he escapes and enlists the aid of a crazy vagabond huckster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) to help him see the great DelaCruz. Only his great-great grandpa can send him back with NO restrictions.
But, naturally, it’s not gonna be that easy. De la Cruz lives in a palatial tower and is difficult to get to, especially when his yearly super concert is only hours away. Miguel and Hector, as you might guess, share secrets, bond, get into trouble together, play at a local talent show, get chased by kooky relatives, with Miguel finally meeting his all-time hero and mentor. Miguel is overjoyed by Ernesto’s attention and love for his craft, but when Hector shows up to confront DelaCruz, things don’t go well for their ‘happy’ reunion.
The third act is a thrilling chase/countdown to Miguel’s final skeletal transformation vs him getting Hector’s precious photograph back home to be remembered… or else! A fanciful screenplay by Matthew Aldrich (The Cleaner) and Adrian Molina (The Good Dinosaur), this richly steeped story in Mexican tradition, slang, and folklore has a rocky start, but once it gets going in the Land of the Dead, it really zooms along.
The plot, though some say copied, has the straight-forward Pixar formula (“make ’em laugh, then make ’em cry”) with some nice twists thrown in for the adults to chew on. And that ending? Devastating! I dare you not to choke up with emotion. Damn you, Pixar! And let’s not forget all the wonderful MUSIC in this movie! The songs are just terrific and catchy enough to kick Frozen‘s butt.
Although the plot holes are abundant (the finale especially), the characters are (pardon the pun) fleshed-out nicely and have great heart. This thanks to Pixar’s director Lee Unkrich, who gave us the fantastic Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. The voice-overs are clean and perfect, and that CGI? OMG! Pixar uses the latest in cutting-edge software and it shows with amazing jaw-dropping visuals, colors, and photo-realistic rendering. It’s scary how GOOD this movie looks!
**Before the movie, there’s the Disney short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a very funny musical romp in Arendelle with that lovable talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad) who wants to give his BFF’s, Elsa & Anna (Idina Menzel & Kristen Bell) a great Holiday Season, but things go sideways as only Olaf can manage.
Benton is cute as a button and pulls off a nice turn as not only the naked sex-kitten, but a fiercely tenacious conniver who’ll stop at nothing to get her way. Beautiful, but deadly. This was L.Q. Jones’ only directed movie and his second only screenplay; most notably Jones is a voracious character actor, being in hundreds of TV shows (mostly Westerns) and movies since 1955 (my favorite was his Three-Fingered Jack in The Mask of Zorro).
(AND IN CASE YOU WERE CURIOUS… here’s my review from 2014.)
The Book of Life (2014)
Hot on the heels of the last animated feature film is this fresh, vibrant, and funny CG animated Mexican folklore story of love, death, and people who look like wood-carved marionettes. And this time, you get a richly told tale of star-crossed lovers mixed with a real holiday (Mexico’s “Day of the Dead”, Nov. 2nd). Ha! Boxtrolls, eat your heart out!
Starting off is a simple field trip to a museum and a group of ornery kids who meet their tour guide, Mary Beth (voiced by Christina Applegate). She takes these unruly kids off the map to a secret location full of Mexican artifacts and introduces them (and us) to The Book of Life; a tome full of Mexican folk tales. Here she stops and tells them a fanciful tale rich in color and weaving a complex, but engrossing story.
She also serves as our narrator throughout the movie about the village of San Angel were we see three boisterous kids, Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin, who are the best of friends. Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) both love Maria (Zoe Saldana), and vie for her affections, each with their own strengths: Manolo with his guitar and singing and Joaquin with bravery and fighting skills.
Watching this are the underworld spirits, Xibalba (Ron Pearlman), ruler of the dismal Land of the Forgotten (LOTF), and his gorgeous wife, La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo), ruler of radiant Land of the Remembered (LOTR). They place a bet on the kids: if Maria marries Joaquin, Xibalba will rule LOTR, if not, the bet’s off. Did I mention Xibalba’s cunning and likes to cheat? Well, he does.
Times passes and Maria grows up to be a super-hottie, much to Joaquin’s delight, who’s now an arrogant, self-centered soldier, who cannot be defeated or killed, thanks to a magical medal he wears. Grown-up Manolo, however, has remained true to his passion: singing and playing his guitar, much to the chagrin of his machismo ex-bullfighting father, Carlos (Hector Elizondo).
Maria, naturally falls for Manolo, but Xibalba won’t have it and schemes to make Maria wed Joaquin any way he can, even if he has to endanger the entire city by bringing back their worst enemy, the bandito Chakal, (Dan Navarro) and his army to do so. Tricking Manolo into thinking Maria is dead, Manolo himself dies and is brought to the beautiful and colorful LOTR, where he meets all his wacky ancestors. There he learns from Xibalba (who won his bet. . kinda) that he was tricked and must go to the LOTF to retrieve his old life back from La Muerte and save Maria and the town from Chakal’s attack.
Directed by Jorge Gutierrez, an award-winning animator, painter, and writer for Nickelodeon, the style is oh-so-very “Mexicana folklorico”, with dazzling colors, imagery, steeped in Mexican culture and folklore, this has a solid story that’s more for adults than kids, thanks to Gutierrez and his co-writer, Doug Langdale. You get hyper-extended faces with huge bulbous noses, large oval eyes, BIG heads with tiny bodies, and joints attached together like puppets, and all set in a world that wonderfully honors the dead and those that have passed away.
You don’t see that everyday, especially in a kids animated feature. Okay, yeah, it’s got the requisite silliness for the children to hold their interest with the usual hokey jokes, over-the-top sight gags, and ridiculous scenes of pure lunacy, but don’t let that deter you from seeing this magical, heart-filled movie that has a deeper message to it.