The Book of Life (2014)
Written by Jorge Gutierrez and Douglas Langdale
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez
Produced by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Hector Elizondo, and Ice Cube
20th Century Fox and Reel FX
PG, 95 minutes
Flat out and up front: If you loved Pacific Rim (2013), you’re going to love The Book Of Life, too. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Del Toro picks movies with heart as a central theme to back, and this one is no exception to his rule. Also, if you’re old enough to remember the Nickelodeon series El Tigre, you’re going to love this movie because Jorge Gutierrez was the mind behind El Tigre, and The Book of Life looks exactly like that show except in beautiful, expensive, deliciously rendered, and scenery porn-tastic 3D CGI animation.
The movie is a love letter to Dia De Los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead), but it’s also a love letter to family and love. This triad is the solid foundation upon which Gutierrez built the story of Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin.
SPOILER WARNING: There will be plot points revealed in this review.
This movie wins in diversity; there were so many Latin@, Afro-Latin@, and biracial kids in the audience of my viewing, which just goes to show diverse content will still fill those seats, Hollywood.
The set-up is a story within a story. The five kids to whom the story is told are all biracial: Sasha is Russian-American, Jane is Chinese-American, Joao is Brazilian-American, Sanjay is Indian-American, and the Goth Kid is Mexican-American. They are all equally fascinated by the story that red-haired museum guide Mary Beth reads to them from the Book of Life. The entire story takes place in Mexico in the lands of the dead—as in Mexican culture. The story is treated as a lesson in being true to oneself, but on a subtler note, it is also a message that children will enthusiastically embrace a fun and exciting story if it is told in an engaging manner. As if that weren’t enough, the voice cast is mostly Mexican and appropriately filled by people of the appropriate ethnicity for the five “real world” kids.
The story is of sweet, gentle Manolo (Diego Luna)—who just wants to play guitar—and scrappy Joaquin (Channing Tatum)—who feels he must live up to the legacy of his war hero father. Although the two boys are best friends, they are also friends with Maria (Zoe Saldana) and are romantically interested in her; though as the film begins, she has no interest in romance and loudly declares her independence.
Although the story of the trio is set in nineteenth-century Mexico, Maria is a girl with modern sensibilities. When asked her opinion on boys and which one she will choose, she proudly declares, “I belong to NO ONE!” Her free-spirited, independent approach to life soon proves too much for her father, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui), who sends her abroad to study. When Maria returns home after ten years or so away, she has become the most beautiful woman in San Angel to the envy of the local girls. As appropriate for the time period, the other girls of the village are weirded out that Maria reads books for fun, and that she studied fencing (and, apparently, kung fu).
While she was away, the boys, who declared they’d wait for her, have grown up. Manolo has become a bullfighter at the insistence of his father, Carlos (Hector Elizondo), but his true wish is to be a musician and live by his emotions. Joaquin, on the other hand, has become a celebrity doer of heroic deeds, aided by something special he got on the Day of the Dead while they were all children. He, unfortunately, has no emotional intelligence. Manolo and Maria both do not want for themselves the lives that their fathers want for them. Joaquin has become something of an egotist, despite still feeling inadequate in the shadow of his own father.
The film carries several important themes: the first is the importance of remembering, loving, and respecting family, but not to the detriment of one’s self. The second is that family will support you and make you strong, but sometimes you must do what is right for yourself. The last is that real love is a force that will prove itself worthy of overcoming any obstacle put in its way. As is true for other Del Toro films, people working together for the greater good against a big threat is what saves the day. Sacrifice for the greater good and ending cycles of negativity and pain are sub-themes that support the major theme. Diego Luna’s poignant and plaintive vocals brought tears to my eyes (and the eyes of several other adults in the theater) during several songs that powerfully punctuated these themes.
Although the love triangle is a tired old trope, Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin are introduced to us as a trio of friends. Although the two boys considered each other rivals for Maria’s affections, their friendship never suffered for it. They called each other “brother”—which was a nice thing to see. Also, Maria was not treated as a reward. She was treated by the two rivals as a woman capable of making up her own mind. It was only her father who treated her as an object.
Aside from the themes and charming story built upon it, I can’t gush enough about the animation. Reel FX Animation Studios is a newcomer on the animation scene, comparatively speaking, but they have got the chops to step up with the big dogs of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks. The animation varies from classic 2D animation, to contemporary 3D, to stylized wooden-figure CGI, to the psychadelic-black-light-neon-glow Land of the Dead CGI; each style carrying its own set of specific and eye-catching details. La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) is lovingly rendered with beautiful embroidery, feathers, and sugar-skull scrollwork. Her candle-hem dress and candle-border sombrero make her a showpiece, but the animation of the candles’ responses to La Muerte’s emotions is nothing short of spectacular.
Xibalba (Ron Perlman, who apparently must appear in any film Del Toro has anything to do with) is a creepy-yet-cartoonish counterpoint; all sharp, pointy angles to counter La Muerte’s curves; all green and black to counter La Muerte’s fiery oranges, yellows, and reds. His Land of the Forgotten is a dying ember of red, sooty grey, and black with feeble greens. Her Land of the Remembered is a vivid riot of festive fiery colors that makes it easy to forget that everyone there is dead. Not one of the children in the audience of my screening seemed remotely frightened by any of the dead-images, even though everyone dead was essentially a skeleton.
The movie has a little sexism: other than Carmen Sanchez showing up to help Manolo in the Land of the Dead (where she acquits herself admirably including fearlessly slapping a death god) and Manolo’s grandmother, who was pretty much nothing but a comic one-liner, there are no other mothers in the film. Maria’s mother is never mentioned. Neither is Joaquin’s. They don’t even rate a passing mention to indicate they were alive once. But Gutierrez does, at least, make an effort to balance it out—early in the movie, in a very touching scene about remembering the dead, there are many mothers and grandmothers. There are also dozens and dozens of mothers and/or women as part of happy couples in the background of San Angel and in the Land of the Remembered. They may not get lines or plot-important presences, but they are visible. The majority of tragic figures in the Land of the Forgotten are male.
The rest of the sexism is presented only as period-appropriate. Maria is frustrated by her father making decisions for her without even consulting or discussing them with her; she is disgusted and repelled by her father’s insistence that she romance Joaquin because General Posada is too old to protect San Angel, but Joaquin is young, vital, and a great fighter. When Maria takes up a sword against the banditos threatening their town, her father exclaims, “you’re like the son I never had, except prettier!” Again, Gutierrez strives for balance in theme if not in plot; amongst the formidable Sanchez ancestors are Manolo’s twin cousins—teenage girls who apparently fought in the revolution and died victorious.
The movie doesn’t have any overt racism; which only makes sense given the creative team and Del Toro’s own tendency to go diverse. The characters as described in the story told to the museum kids are all traditional wooden figures—but they are represented mostly as one shade of complexion with variations going paler rather than darker. As for the Day of the Dead references? I don’t pretend to be an expert in Mexican culture, but the film seemed a respectful and fun way to share the significance of Dia De Los Muertos with a wider audience; and anything that helps people understand that Day of the Dead is not merely “Mexican Halloween” can only be good for increased cultural awareness. The movie does take a few liberties, culturally speaking: Bullfighting is really a Spanish thing rather than a Mexican thing, but it’s forgivable as it adds action to the film.
There are several disabled characters in the film as well. The Sanchez family has several characters with disabilities. The operatic bullfighter on Manolo’s father’s side has blades where his arm and leg used to be and wears an eye patch. General Posada has a hook for a hand. Manolo’s grandmother is in a wheelchair. Several of the elders of San Angel appear to be veterans of the war with accompanying wounds. Joaquin joins their ranks, needing an eye patch by the time the film has reached its conclusion. For a movie full of death and people with debilitating injuries, none of it is portrayed as scary. The worst portrayal of pain is Skeleton Luis protesting that his arthritis is bothering him and slowing him down a little. Despite the spooky subject matter, kids above age five will probably be okay—though they may need a little explaining (the little girl next to me was full of questions).
For a hopeless romantic like me, the movie didn’t just tug at the heartstrings. It yanked.
4.5 out of 5
You can go ahead and give it the whole five stars if you’re not seriously repulsed by potty humor and don’t wish that particular “comedic trend” was over already.
Take away half a star if you didn’t find at least one moment worth getting a little misty-eyed over.
Take away a whole star if you are one of the people with vision issues who can’t even see this film in 3D without debilitating headaches, or just go see it in 2D and enjoy.