“The Book of Life” impressed me, and I wasn’t the only one. After the show the halfway empty theatre erupted into applause and for good reason. A lot of films just have a good time with fun characters and leave it that, but this one actually managed to have some pretty amazing points beyond just general points and messages. It truly got into the motivations of it’s characters and what defined them and critiqued and celebrated the culture that inspired it. I wish there were more children’s films like this. I’ll get into the details of what I mean in the assessment.
This film follows both the Halloween theme (spirits and the dead) while also celebrating another culture and holiday in that it is inspired by the myths and legends around the Day of the Dead.
“The Book of Life” was written by Jorge Gutierrez and Doug Langdale, directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Carina Schulze and Guillermo del Toro whose name is the first thing you see when the show begins. His vision is a large part of what made this film possible. Which is great since he’s one of my favorite directors.
The premise of the film begins with troubled kids from detention taking a tour of the Mexican Cultural Museum where a mysterious lady who is their tour guide shows them the “Book of Life” and tells the stories of the characters after laying out the world where the afterlife has “The Remembered” in constant celebration ruled by their God La Muerta and “The Forgotten” who have been forgotten and are ruled by the God Xibalba. It begins on the Day of the Dead where three best friends have a wager put upon them by La Muerta and Xibalba on who will win the hand of Maria. Xibabla chooses the fighter and warrior Jaoquin to win her hand and La Muerta chooses Manolo, the muscian from a line of Bull Fighters. From here the story unfolds as family obligation is put on the characters, forcing Maria abroad to Spain for school, Jaoquin as a soldier for Maria’s father the General and Manolo as the Bull Fighter to win her hand. These are the main stories that unfold as the God’s act on the events around them.
Here is the assessment of the film:
The Pros: The World – The world, especially when the tour lady starts the story is fantastic! Most of it takes place in the small town of San Angel, and when it isn’t there we travel between the Land of the Remembered and Forgotten. My only issue is I wish we had seen conflict in the other worlds but that might have been the point. The conflict is among the living and among the living we see drama between lovers, family and bandits. The colors are dark and stark so when there is color it is beautiful! Every scene is rich with detail that helps give us the worlds and minds of the characters.
La Muerta – She was my favorite character in this and the one who seems to have wisdom even if she quickly will give it up for a bet. This need to take risks and bet adds dimension to her as a God especially in her relationship to Xibalba as all she wants is honesty from him and true sorrow for the things he’s done. For this reason her making Manolo her champion makes sense since he speaks the most genuine and honestly and isn’t bound by social pressure the way Maria and Jaoquin often are by their father’s legacies. He has enough will from the beginning to break that, much like La Muerta with breaking the rules so that Day of the Dead can occur and families can reunite for a time. That is her doing and there is a reason she is loved. She also has a great character design with a flowing red dress, skeleton face and candles on her hat and dress. Kate del Castillo does a great job bringing gravitas to the part.
Xibalba – Ron Perlman plays a very crafty role, which is great to see. His character reminded me a lot of Hades from Disney’s “Hercules” except that he deep down did just want love. This drives his character to strive for power as he feels slighted and jealous at everything La Muerta does and hates that he is watching over a world that is dying with people forgotten, for he feels forgotten. This drives his recklessness and makes him compelling. He doesn’t want to be alone and left out and that makes him sympathetic even as he does some pretty bad things to the human pawns in the bets (poisoning Maria and tricking Manolo into giving up his heart). He also has a great design that looks like acid and tar, which at the beginning is what he’s described of being made of.
The Sanchez Family and Manolo – The Sanchez family is fascinating, we see the legacy of bull fighting and “Being a man” a huge part which Manolo turns on it’s head by being a musician. Much of the story is his father coming to terms with that choice and Manolo’s inability to kill. It brings great drama and it is this dichotomy between tradition and doing what’s right (not to kill) that leads Maria to falling in love with him. Manolo thinks outside of himself while his family is largely obsessed with legacy. His mother doesn’t agree with legacy and shows how complex their family is in the Land of the Remembered as they had ancestors who fought in the revolution and that at the core it is character and integrity that matters, which Manolo has. He discovers all this when he meets his mother and dead ancestors in the Land of the Remembered and his mother and grandfather help him reach La Muerta who has been forsaken to the Land of the Forgotten because of Manolo’s death by Xibalba’s snake. We see him change the family legacy as it comes to a head when Xibalba will grant him life if he can defeat all past bulls killed by the Sanchez family, which he does in an epic battle that ends in a song for forgiveness for what his family has done. In the end they all grow through Manolo’s actions.
Of Jaoquin’s Hyper Masculinity – Jaoquin is obsessed with fighting and being tough above all else and this is celebrated by the culture as seen by the Sanchez all being bull fighters. His father was a hero and when he saves the General who is the mayor of the town and Maria’s father he is taken under his wing. This shapes his tendencies in viewing people as serving him rather than the other way around that when Maria returns he can’t see past himself and only wants to talk about his medals. It takes his talisman that makes him invulnerable being taken and Manolo dying for him to rethink his priorities and to stop trying to be the hyper warrior his father was. He also stops assuming what Maria wants and in the process the competition ends between the friends as they both truly act from love. His arc is growing out of his hyper masculinity and finding tenderness and balance. Malono goes through this too but much faster as for him it’s the simple choice of not to kill the bull.
Maria – Maria is an interesting character. She functions as a plot device for the boys to get out of their families shadows and become their own people, but she also is her own person too. She’d marry Jaoquin if he’d stay to protect the town from the bandits but if that isn’t an issue and if Manolo loves her, she’d choose him. She’s educated and smart and she calls on the town to fight back against the bandit invasion. I kind of wish La Muerta had chosen her as her champion. Zoe Zaldana is wonderful in this role.
Relationship Healing – Xibalba realizes how selfish he was and in the end he rules together with La Muerta again, it’s implied as they change from their human disguises (museum guard was Xibalba, tour guide was La Muerta) and they kiss. Manolo and his father make peace, Manolo and Jaoquin make peace, Maria and her father are on the same page and the town fights off the bandits. The arcs get completed and it’s all the rich for it. “Write your own story.” As the Candle Maker (the 3rd Death God) reminds us at the end.
Okay/Cons: The Kids – The kids in detention are there giving commentary like the grandson in “The Princess Bride,” and like him they are pretty forgettable. I get that they are standins for us, but they aren’t really needed. The story is rich and I cared more about the final reveal of Xibalba and La Muerta than about them.
The Music – Most are mariachi inspired covers of popular songs…this film would have worked better with an original soundtrack given it is an original world without pop culture references besides the songs. The songs kind of took me out of it for that reason.
The Beginning – Things start out really slow, both with the kids in modern day (never really cared about them) and when our heroes are children. I get why it’s important as it establishes their motivations (Maria to prevent killing and her hatred of it, Manolo and his music and bull fighting dichotomy and Jaoquin haunted by his father’s martyr legacy). But it could have been done faster. The best parts of the early scenes are when La Muerta and Xibalba interact.
The Candle Maker – Ice Cube plays a God who is kind of like Robin William’s Genie and just as annoying. I couldn’t stand how annoying this guy could get which is a shame since the Candle Maker as the neutral party is an interesting concept. He isn’t bad and has some great wisdom, but in the end is merely a somewhat annoying plot device.
This was a really good film. I don’t know if I’d call it great because the things that are okay are at many points cons through the film. The kids are super annoying at the beginning and the slow start makes it hard initially to get invested in the characters until we see them again when they are older and active agents in their own lives. We just didn’t get enough time with the Gods in the beginning and had too much time with characters who were children. Still a fantastic film that I’d recommend. If you like animated films that have their own style and a good message, this is your film.
Final Score: 8.5 / 10, really good and a favorite.