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#SAVFF Review: The Book of Life

ANIMATION ADDICTS will adore the colorful spectacle of the first feature from Jorge Gutierrez, best known for his kids’ series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera on Nickelodeon.

Visually, Gutierrez smacks the piñata straight on, filling the screen with eye candy in every frame. Mining the kaleidoscopic imagery of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the film soars with richly-hued flowers, sparkling landscapes and friendly skulls, getting the marigold yellows and mustaches exactly right.

A mainstream Latino kids’ movie from Hollywood is long overdue, and the Tijuana-born Gutierrez uses the opportunity to present the joy and aesthetic beauty of his heritage. The writer/director also symbolically alludes to his other artistic influences, drawing characters that sport a Picasso-esque crooked nose here, a blocky Diego Rivera demeanor there.

But this sugar-spun love story lacks a nutritive backbone. Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are friends competing for their childhood sweetheart, Maria (Zoe Saldana); their love triangle turns into a fight to save their families and their town of San Angel from a bad bandit as well as the antics of the Other World’s overlords. Spoiler alert: Everyone lives happily ever after.

Dragging down the simplistic plot are head-scratchingly bizarre musical covers (Avett Brothers? Radiohead?) that turn the soundtrack into a serenade by a bad mariachi band. And while the script throws a few scraps to the strength of women (Maria knows kung fu!), most of the female characters resemble tiny-waisted, big-eyed Bratz dolls.

Still, family-friendly films that aren’t completely insufferable are rare, and The Book of Life is bound to run a long, happy course. Anyway, Gutierrez isn’t trying to be edgy; he’s just trying to tell a sweet story.

“The new punk rock in this cynical world is just to be honest,” he told the crowd at the Savannah Film Festival screening.

“Be earnest. That’s the most rebellious thing you can do these days.”