Color me impressed. After years of rumors about an animated movie about the Day of the Dead and one botched attempt by a different studio to trademark the Mexican holiday, here it is in theaters. Directed by Mexican animator Jorge R. Gutierrez of Nickelodeon’s “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera” and produced by fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life is a beautiful rendition of ancient mythology. Its characters are charming, the hyper-hued world is immersive, and the voice talent is rightfully filled with Latino talent. Not only did I enjoy watching the film, I felt a tinge of pride hearing Spanish jokes without affected pronunciations, loving jabs at Catholic iconography, and seeing scrumptious traditional food on-screen.
A bus pulls up to a sleepy-looking museum; a small group of troubled kids pour out. A tall, skinny tour guide (Christina Applegate) takes over and insists they need a special tour, taking them through an unconventional entrance into the wing of ancient Mexican art. There, she introduces them to the Book of Life and our characters, Maria (Zoe Saldana), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Manolo (Diego Luna). Unbeknownst to the trio, they are at the center of a bet between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), guardian over the fiesta-themed Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), ruler over the Land of the Forgotten, which is as sad as it sounds. The gamble is over which of Maria’s childhood friends will win her hand in marriage. Will it be the strong Joaquin, son of a slain general, always looking for a fight? Or will it be the sensitive Manolo, heir to a bull-fighting family who would rather play guitar?
The storyteller approach works well to introduce audience to the concept of the Day of the Dead and the various characters of the afterlife. The Book of Life shares its reverence to Mexican culture clearly, never at the expense of its characters or story. Early in the movie, Maria is shipped off to a Catholic school in Spain known as the Sisters of Perpetual Flame of Purity. When she is leaving the train station, saying goodbye to her friends, the local nuns sing “Ave Maria” behind her. Almost all the characters are wooden dolls, allowing for interesting textures and effects. Older characters have their paint chipped or wooden faces dirtied. Adult Manolo sports a subtle 5 o’clock shadow, and Maria’s pet pig, Chuy, looks like the colorful wooden toys sold in Mexican markets. Xibalba is made of tar and given a sleek look with red skulls for eyes. La Muerte is made of candied sugar and her skin shines like crystals in the sun. The most interesting aspect for the inclusion of wooden dolls is their ability to portray a myriad of different skin tones with different types of wood. Very often, Latinos are limited to one shade, usually on the lighter side. Unfortunately, that ability isn’t utilized beyond a few background characters, but it marks a difference and hopefully a start to including more images of Afrolatinos and indigenous Latinos.
In addition to Luna, Saldana, and Tatum, the supporting cast reads like a shortlist of top Latino actors and comedians: Danny Trejo, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, Eugenio Derbez, with director Gutierrez and del Toro providing cameos. Ice Cube chimes in as the glowing Candlemaker, the monarch over the different realms. The writing hits that perfect sweet spot of witty and fast enough for adults while still funny for the kids. The Book of Life includes plenty of modern music that will quickly date it (think Shrek and Smashmouth), but it becomes something kids can sing along to (or at least the chiquitos in my audience did). However, Luna’s version of “Creep” is for all the grown-ups.
Why is it a big deal to have Latino actors voice their roles in a movie about a Mexican tradition? Obvious cultural points aside, it’s because the last American produced animated feature to be set in any South American country or feature mostly Latino characters was The Three Caballeros back in 1945. Yes, the Allies hadn’t yet attacked the Japanese mainland or thrown out the Nazis in power when Walt Disney released the Good Neighbor policy-influenced film. The movie was a literal cultural exchange: the adventures through South America with Spanish songs and traditional dances began when the American Donald Duck opens gifts from his friends, the Brazilian José Carioca and the Mexican Panchito Pistoles.
Since then, animated Latino characters features have never quite been the center of the story. Often stereotyped and reduced to one-note comic relief, they were the source of adolescent disappointment (a Chihuahua, AGAIN?!) and adult embarrassment, a kind of “Thanks but no thanks” gesture with few exceptions. I loved the tough female mechanic from Disney’s Atlantis, but that’s about it for modern portrayals outside of TV shows (which, as of the last 10 years with the success of Dora and Handy Manny, have thankfully become more prevalent). It matters to kids to see their culture on-screen. Just ask my sister and I to sing the Spanglish theme of The Three Caballeros or ask which Epcot pavilion we have the most pictures of (Mexico, because that’s the only place where guests can take photos with Donald, Jose, and Panchito).
Where The Book of Life falters is its female characters. There’s a concerted effort to make Maria (Saldana) a proto-feminist after studying abroad. She’s independent, rebuffing Joaquin and Manolo’s advances because “it’s not that easy,” but she’s something to be “won” and still sexualized. Wooden jaws drop at the sight of her ridiculously tiny feet, tiny waist, and bulbous eyes. She calls out men’s behavior as wrong, but during one action sequence, she becomes the damsel in distress. Maria proves she can fight, boasting her fencing and kung fu prowess, but she’s never the final hero. A set of twin banditas show up later in the film and, during the fight sequence, end up devolving into a gossipy conversation. Even the tour guide is sexualized with a slit skirt and a head larger than her body. Come on! This felt so infuriatingly good to burst those roles, especially in machismo culture. Pero, not today. Not yet.
Overall, The Book of Life is a colorful page turner from beginning to end. It also feels like something made particularly for bicultural children, those of us straddling the old world and the new homeland. Manolo’s break from his ancestor’s bullfighting legacy and Maria’s rejection of cruelty to animals and machismo are the new norms they manage to make peace within their culture and families. It’s the kind of cultural dialogue every hyphen American makes: what’s to hold sacred as tradition and what is meant for the Land of the Forgotten. The Book of Life navigates this cultural dichotomy beautifully with its narrative approach, reverent attention to detail, and colorful characters and settings that pop off the screen.
Oh, and full points for that Animal Farm reference. I see you nerds.