When you walk out of a movie, any movie, smiling it’s definitely a win, but after the end of writer/director Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life not only was I smiling, I was practically vibrating with anticipation for a sequel because I honestly didn’t want to leave the world of San Angel. There’s a lot to be said for the cultural landscape of animation when you find yourself crying out, “Yes! More of THAT!” because The Book of Life shows us just how much we’re missing out on, how many stories have gone untold. It took Gutierrez fifteen years to get the film made, and those years worth of passion and love for his home country shows in the vibrant, kinetic, and joyous story that is unrelenting in its dedication to throwing the windows wide open on what it means to be Mexican. The Book of Life is Gutierrez’s – and by extension producer Guillermo Del Toro’s – love letter to Mexico and Mexican culture via the celebration of one of the country’s most revered holidays.
Celebrated from October 31st – November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the embodiment of Mexican culture as families gather in remembrance of their deceased loved ones by building altars and leaving offerings around their graves. But it’s not a somber affair by any means. Music, food, and colorful decorations ensure that death is not something to be feared but is a natural part of life. And it’s through the rituals of the holiday that Mexicans strengthen familial bonds and remain spiritually connected, keeping the memories of those they’ve lost alive. The Book of Life honors those themes while crafting a beautiful fairy tale that will most definitely cast a long shadow over subsequent animated films.
When a group of rowdy children show up at a museum, they’re greeted by the unfazed Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) who, in celebration of the Day of the Dead, shows them the Book of Life, which contains all the great stories of Mexico. She relates one in particular, using a set of carved dolls to tell the story of Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin. In the town of San Angel, the three children are playing among the gravestones during Dia de los Muertos when La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a wager about which of the two boys Maria will marry. If Xibalba wins and Joaquin marries Maria, he gets to rule the Land of the Remembered, but if La Muerte wins and Manolo marries Maria, then Xibalba will have to leave the humans alone.
Unbeknownst to La Muerte, Xibalba gifts a young Joaquin with a medallion that will make him invulnerable, which he realizes soon after when Maria frees a bunch of pigs from being slaughtered and he effortlessly defends her and the town from an angry boar. Manolo is no slouch either, revealing his gift as a matador to stop the beast and save the little pig Maria sought to free. Angered at his daughter’s feisty and unladylike sensibilities, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui) sends Maria to Spain to be educated. Before she leaves, Maria gets a final goodbye with her friends, gifting Manolo a new guitar inscribed with the phrase, “Always play from your heart.” Manolo gifts her the little pig, Chewie (also Carlos Alazraqui), and promises to wait for her. Joaquin, lacking a present, vows to always fight for her as the train speeds away.
Years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) has been trained by his father, Carlos Sanchez (Hector Elizondo) to be a bullfighter like his ancestors before him, including his grandmother, though his true desire is playing guitar with his mariachi friends. Joaquin (Channing Tatum), thanks to the medallion, has become a great soldier and hero like his father before him, returning to San Angel the same day as Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from Spain. The two men both vy for her love and her hand in marriage, but when Xibalba believes he’s losing the bet he makes sure Manolo isn’t even a contender. From there it’s a race for Manolo to return to the living world to be with Maria again and save the town from the dreaded bandit Chakal (Dan Navarro) who’s out to get his medallion back.
The story itself is actually quite simple. While there’s a lot of window dressing with gods, realms, and world-shattering consequences, it really boils down to being true to yourself – a common premise in family films. But through the lens of The Book of Life being true to yourself, standing up for what you think is right and what you believe in – whether it’s defending your town from banditos or choosing the guitar over the sword – is what solidifies how we are remembered. Both Joaquin and Manolo live in the shadows of their family legacies and in trying to live up to those standards they ultimately set the stage for the chaos that follows. Maria, in contrast, is very aware of who she is and it’s her encouragement and love that leads the two friends down their desired paths. She too has a legacy to uphold and she proves herself to be every bit the leader the Posadas desire. Not only is this a hero’s journey, it’s the journey of an entire community.
The simplicity of the story allows for the film to revel in the culture of Mexico, using the bright colors, energetic music, and stunning art to build the worlds of the living and the dead. Jorge Gutierrez has been quoted saying that he wanted the film to look as beautiful as the art book for an animated film looks and my God did Reel FX Creative Studios deliver. The settings are grand and gorgeous and the designs of the characters are distinct and wonderfully original. Because Mary Beth is using carved figures to tell the story, the people of San Angel look like wooden figures, which shows in the angular build of the characters and the static movement of hair and clothes. The designs, however, don’t limit the characters or the settings. In fact, the choice to tell the story through doll-like figures allows for more detail. The many medals on Joaquin’s uniform, the intricate carvings in Manolo’s guitar, as well as La Muerte’s catrina visage and Xibalba’s Aztecan armor all invite closer scrutiny. You should want to press your face to the screen in order to take it all in.
The cast alone should be reason enough to see the film. Other reviews I’ve read have claimed Channing Tatum’s performance stands out the most and I’m inclined to agree. It isn’t hard to see where the story is going and who Maria will end up with, but Tatum’s Joaquin never lacks personality despite being the overconfident jock to Manolo’s sensitive musician. There’s a surprising amount of depth to his character and Tatum does a wonderful job of capturing Joaquin’s arrogance as well as his deep love and affection for Maria and Manolo. Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana aren’t slackers by any means. Luna’s Manolo is charming, mischievous, and lovable. There’s a believable earnestness and sincerity about the character that is entirely Luna’s making. And Saldana’s Maria is more than just the pretty love interest. She’s a capable woman with a mind of her own and she isn’t afraid to speak out when she’s offended. But she also knows how to have fun, sporting a laugh that’s delightfully infectious. However, I’d have to say that Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman steal the movie for me as La Muerte and Xibalba. The characters and their actors have great chemistry, bickering like an old married couple (which they are) that just happen to be otherworldly gods. Both possess fiery tempers, literally, but both are just as easily soothing and calming. I mean, it’s Ron Perlman. C’mon! Filling out the cast are fantastic actors like Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, Danny Trejo, Grey DeLisle, Miguel Sandoval, Placido Domingo, and Ice Cube as The Candle Maker.
Like the designs and the brilliant color palette, the music in The Book of Life is just as important in telling the story and shows how specific cultural influences can affect songs and their meaning. The soundtrack to The Book of Life is mostly pop songs, sung by the actors, ranging from Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”. It’s an eclectic mix of songs with two originals written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla. At first I was a bit put off by the jukebox musical unfolding and, to be honest, I’m still not certain Radiohead’s “Creep” was the most appropriate song for a film like this, but I give a huge amount of credit to Santaolalla for the movie’s score and the fusion of Latin American music and pop songs. Though the audience seeing the film may not be of Hispanic, Latin American, or Mexican descent, music is a shared language and many of us remember these songs, which gives audiences a common ground through which to relate to the story and the characters. There are also little pieces of music that show Santaolalla’s cleverness, like the nuns singing “Adios, Maria” in the style of “Ave Maria” or the use of Kinky’s “Más” whenever Joaquin goes into super soldier mode. It’s a soundtrack and score that has a distinct identity, something that other animated films tend to lack.
Hopefully The Book of Life will become a classic of the holiday season because it deserves the attention of children, parents, and really any fan of animation. It’s a cultural celebration of life and death, bringing families and friends together to remember the ones we love and giving us all permission to “play from the heart.”