If I reviewed The Book of Life on visuals alone, it would be a stunning masterpiece. If I added in thoughts about the soundtrack, it would still rank high on my list of favorite animated features. Unfortunately, a movie is more than moving pictures and music - it needs a story, and for being titled The BOOK of Life, this one doesn't quite hit that mark. All this is not to say that watching The Book of Life isn't a treat and a delight, because it is. The characters and worlds created are a joy to discover. The tale they tell just isn't as vibrant.
The movie opens on a modern day museum, and an unruly field trip group, but we soon hear the story of Maria (animal lover and carefree spirit), Manolo (sensitive musician turned bullfighter), and Joaquin ("courageous" town hero), three friends from a small Mexican town. A wager between La Muerte (Lady Death/Ruler of the Land of the Remembered) and Xibalba (Ruler of the Land of the Forgotten) pits Manolo against Joaquin in competition for Maria's hand in marriage.
Romance, sneakiness, family struggles, and outright cheating ensue, leaving Manolo to travel through several Lands in order to reach Maria while Joaquin decides to make an ultimate sacrifice to be a true hero. Maria herself has a few clever lines of dialogue, but is ultimately a prize to be won, not a dynamic character. That's where my main issue with The Book of Life lies: what if Maria wants neither boy/man? What if she doesn't want a man at all? Or even a woman? In the end, even if/when she does choose one of her best friends as the person she is in love with, that choice is overshadowed by the wager - if Maria is a good soul, she will choose Manolo, and therefore La Muerte, which will save humanity. If she chooses Joaquin, and therefore Xibalba, well, then the bad guys have won.
Maybe I would have fell for the passion and drama of the movie if I had watched during Halloween/Day of the Dead, when it came out. Even though it's called The Book of Life, death is a main character. And, along with the animation and the music, death is done well (read: appropriately). I would have no issue showing this movie to children to teach them about honoring and remembering the dead - it's just the movie's treatment of childhood relationships turned marriages and girls as trophies that bothers me.
In short, come for the animation, stay for the songs, and enjoy the afterlife. Just leave your expectations for gender equality at the door.