‘Book of Life’ spins colorful folk-art fantasy tale

Sept. 05, 2014 | 7:45 a.m.
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"The Book of Life" from producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez is an animated feature film comedy with a unique visual style.

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Zoe Saldana voices Maria, a woman who is wooed by Manolo and his longtime best friend Joaquin, in the movie "The Book of Life." (Twentieth Century Fox/Reel FX)

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La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) in "The Book of Life." (Twentieth Century Fox/Reel FX)

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Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and Carmen, Manolo's mother, (voiced by Ana De La Reguera) in "The Book of Life." (Twentieth Century Fox/Reel FX)

book1 Book of Life spins colorful folk art fantasy tale

Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) in "The Book of Life." (Twentieth Century Fox/Reel FX)

Animated characters are often inspired by animals, toys or fairy-tale princesses. But in “The Book of Life,” an animated fantasy due Oct. 17, writer-director Jorge Gutierrez found his muses in an unexpected and vibrant new place — the world of Mexican folk art.

The Mexico City-born Gutierrez, best known for creating the Emmy-winning Nickelodeon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera” with his wife, Sandra Equihua, sets his story during the Mexican Day of the Dead, when it’s said that spirits can pass between worlds. Best friends Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) battle for the affection of Maria (Zoe Saldana), and two spirits, the motherly La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and fearsome Xibalba (Ron Perlman) bet on who will win.

Gutierrez, making his first feature film with the help of producer and mentor Guillermo del Toro, based La Muerte and Xibalba’s relationship on the volatile, passionate marriage between Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and their wager on the young lovers is really a bet about humanity.

“They’re a feisty couple who can’t live together and can’t live without each other,” Gutierrez said. “La Muerte believes the heart of mankind is pure, Xibalba believes it’s not.”

Both characters are intricately designed in a manner rarely seen in a CG-animated film.

Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) in "The Book of Life." (20th Century fox)

Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) in “The Book of Life.” (20th Century fox)

La Muerte is made of sugar candy, in a palette of warm reds and oranges lighted by candles on her hat and dress. Xibalba, who wears the armor of an old Spanish conquistador, is sharp-edged, in a palette of cold blues and greens, and “made out of tar and everything icky,” Gutierrez said. Xibalba’s design comprises some 500 skulls — they’re even in his pupils.

“I kept waiting for someone above me to tell me, ‘You can’t have a character that detailed,’” said Gutierrez, whose film, the second feature from Dallas-based animation and visual effects company Reel FX, is being released by 20th Century Fox. “I thought the studio would think, ‘You know, these characters are just too different.’ But there was no weight of a giant franchise.”

Once he’d won over the executives, Gutierrez had another constituency to persuade — the animators.

“I said, ‘Guys, this is gonna be really hard to animate,” Gutierrez said. “But I promise when you’re done you will love your work.’”

The detailed work is all in service of a story in which La Muerte and Xibalba learn a thing or two from the humble humans they’re watching.

“My favorite Greek myths are the ones where the humans teach the gods a lesson,” Gutierrez said. “For me, it’s a metaphor for kids teaching their parents.”

– Rebecca Keegan | @ThatRebecca

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