There is a stunningly-animated film about the Day of the Dead directed by an Emmy-Award-winning Mexican animator-director and produced by Guillermo Del Toro currently in theaters? Hold the candy, I’ll take that treat, please!
“The Book of Life” is every bit as visually captivating and delightfully sweet as a Mexican sugar skull. A simple story acts as the vehicle for visual wonderment and cultural learning, all the while including fun and memorable characters and a solid couple handfuls of laughs. Thankfully, after years of sitting on the shelf, this project was able to be cobbled together into something quite special.
Mexican director and animator Jorge Gutirrez spent ages pitching the idea of an animated feature-length family film about the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, to all six major Hollywood studios with very little encouragement. He was turned down from nearly all corners based on the macabre content of his story, but Reel FX bit, suggesting the determined animator appeal to famed director and producer Guillermo Del Toro. Although Gutirrez admits that his pitch to Del Toro was, to put it mildly, less than convincing, Del Toro said that he was a fan of Gutirrez’s previous work and decided to hop onboard. A beautiful partnership spawned a beautiful film.
The story is fairly simple. Two chicos fight over one little chica, and then they grow up andÉ the battle continues. One of the boys, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), grows up to be the strong, beloved but narcissistic town hero, while the other, Manolo (Diego Luna), is a peace-loving musician forced into bullfighting by his family. The coveted girl in question, Maria (Zoe Saldana), is anything but some prize to be won. Little girls will be in awe of her sword-fighting skills, positive attitude and commanding screen presence (Saldana’s pretty captivating). I’ve heard Mary Sue jeers concerning Maria fluttering about, and if I hear one more entirely gender-specific insult tossed at any female character, my own sword will come out. But I slightly digress.
Two gods, Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rule over the different realms of the afterlife, catch a glimpse of the battle for Maria’s hand in marriage and decide to shake on a wager: If Maria chooses Joaquin, the god of the Land of the Forgotten will rule that of the Remembered, but if she chooses Manolo, the aforementioned god will no longer have the freedom to mess with the living. One of the gods fixes things (oh, hush, it’s in the trailer), and we are transported into the magical, visually stunning, sugar-skull-colored Land of the Remembered. It’s glorious, and yes, I would recommend shelling out the extra cash for 3-D; sometimes it is genuinely worth it.
So yes, the story is simple, but it pleases. The simplicity of the story allows for some fun music Ñ Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait” and Radiohead’s “Creep” make their way in there, sung by the characters in the film Ñ as well as extra time spent in the realms of the afterlife. The character designs are stunning. Each character appears to be carved out of wood with joints that move as if constructed by a toymaker. The colors are vibrant throughout, and the movement is frenetic yet lulled when required. You can practically feel the love pouring off the screen. “The Book of Life” is certainly a labor of love if I’ve ever seen one.
How exactly does this film focus on the Day of the Dead? Well, legend has it those who die land in one of two realms: the Land of the Remembered or that of the Forgotten. People that are remembered after death are fortunate enough to fiesta in a candy-colored land of music and dancing, while those who leave no footprints in the world of the living are destined to waste away in a netherworld of decay and dead silence. Questions might materialize in the viewers’ minds such as, how does notoriety affect one’s afterlife placement? Is it fair that one’s placement in the afterlife is reliant on whether the family and friends of the deceased live or die? You can bet your bottom peso I flew to the Wikipedia “Day of the Dead” page after seeing “The Book of Life” and learned quite a bit.
And I think that’s what Gutirrez and Del Toro hope for above all for their non-Hispanic American viewers: Mexican cultural recognition and appreciation. I feel the national pride and understand the richness of Da de los Muertos in every frame of “The Book of Life.” I want to learn more. I want to think about those I have lost, not in a self-pitying way, but with a positive mindset; there are jokes and smiles to remember in lieu of lifelessness. Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz said in an NPR podcast regarding the film, “Éthat’s what the Day of the Dead holiday is all about, is remembering your family and remembering that love, so that’s what ‘Book of Life’ is about.” Why is there no American equivalent for this beautiful holiday?
At the very least, we have “The Book of Life.” Y gracias a Dios por eso.