Encouraging a sensitive boy to win over an ostensibly independent girl by, in her words, “always [following his] heart,” Mexican animated fable The Book of Life‘s hackneyed stock plot preaches tolerance while lamely reinforcing the status quo. Realistically, you shouldn’t expect penetrating life lessons from a film where balladeer Manolo (Diego Luna) digs deep inside himself to serenade sassy heroine Maria (Zoe Saldana) but only dredges up Hallmark Card–ready sentimentality: a constellation of candles, an instantly forgettable sunset, and a bad cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
But The Book of Life‘s plot hinges on Manolo and war-hero Joaquin’s (Channing Tatum) romantic rivalry, making pseudo-empowered Maria — she knows kung fu! — a human prize. Manolo and Joaquin’s contest is encouraged by Xibalba and La Muerte (Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo), dueling rulers of the afterlife who bet on who will wed Maria. The ghosts of Manolo’s family further validate his quest by returning to help him on the Día de los Muertos.
The film’s rote right-makes-might fantasy wouldn’t be so obnoxious if pandering to the lowest common denominator wasn’t its default mode. You might be able to forgive the Shrek-worthy jukebox soundtrack, including covers of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.”
But you can’t escape the Speedy Gonzalez–level ethnic humor — the filmmakers literally put facial hair and sombreros on everything, including a mustachioed globe and its sombrero-shaped spiral galaxy home. Instead of swinging for the fences, The Book of Life bunts, and still strikes out.