G.I. Joe star Channing Tatum has played his share of war heroes, but never one as animated or macho as his mustachioed Joaquin in the fantastical The Book of Life.
The wild, 3-D animated tale (due out Oct. 17) features a love triangle among three childhood friends, Manolo (voice by Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana) and Tatum's Joaquin, who are stirred up after the unpredictable gods wager on which man will win Maria's heart.
"Manolo and my character Joaquin were best friends, we were all like the Three Musketeers," says Tatum, discussing his first major animated role. "But craziness ensues as the gods wager. Things happen that people won't expect, I can guarantee that."
Best to expect the unexpected in the story by director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro, as the three characters deal with their interweaving struggles.
The story focuses on the romantic, strong-jawed Manolo, who has big problems besides the growing competition with his best friend. Manolo dreams of breaking away from his family's rich history of bullfighting to play the guitar, much to the dismay of his father, the world's greatest matador (Hector Elizondo) and super-macho grandfather (Danny Trejo).
"Much of this is Manolo's magic journey. He has to come to terms with who he is," says Gutierrez.
This journey takes him from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Remembered, where people who have lived complete lives, and are remembered among the living, go after they die. A final, daunting destination is The Land of the Forgotten, where those who have died with unfulfilled lives dwell.
Along the way Manolo meets his bullfighter great-grandfather, who always wanted to be an opera singer (Placido Domingo) but never followed his dream. There are also wild characters including Candle Maker (rapper Ice Cube), an ancient god with a body of wax and a beard made of clouds.
"Who better than Ice Cube?" asks Gutierrez. "He turned out to be really funny."
The stylized look in many scenes is inspired by a Mexican holiday dear to Gutierrez's heart: Day of the Dead (which culminates Nov. 2, shortly after the film's release). It took 14 years to get the film made after he found a receptive ear with idiosyncratic producer Del Toro.
"I have been pitching the story and people have been saying, 'This is cool, but you're never going to get it made,' " says Gutierrez. "To other cultures it might seem dark, but the Day of the Dead is actually a very positive thing. It's about joyfully remembering the people no longer with us."
The Alabama-born Tatum learned about this world on the job.
"When this was pitched to me, it was like, 'How does this work? I don't know much about the holiday.' But this movie is a mirror of the director. It's hilarious and crazy."
There's also heart, even in Manolo's battle with his best friend.
"It goes to a place of sour grapes and deep hurt to the point of losing their friendship," says Tatum. "But friendship always wins. That's the message of this story: love and friendship and what you're willing to sacrifice for these ideas."
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