Produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, who also wrote the film along with Douglas Langdale, The Book of Life is a work of heart-felt desire to see a culture represented in a certain way in this particular genre, animation.
From the get-go, The Book of Life is a stunning example of how original, creative and colourful the World of animation can be, and how original ideas and shining light on other areas of the world, other cultural ideals and the variety of people who inhabit these places, can result in something magical. Manolo is a young guy who is conflicted in his life between choosing his own path, that of music, and the path that follows his ancestors, bullfighting. Amidst this internal battle in which Manolo must decide what to do in his life, he, as well as the town’s local hero, and childhood friend of Manolo, Joaquin, play a game of one-upmanship with one another in order to gain the affections of their childhood crush, Maria, who has returned to the village as a grown young woman. Spanning fantastical worlds, and looked down on by gods who hold a contest with one another as to which man will gain the young Maria’s hand, we follow a story that looks at love, romance and family, while also looking at deeper parts of existence, such as loss, mourning, death and the wonderful Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a festival celebration held as a way to remember those that have passed on.
I was excited about this film when I first heard about it back in 2013, and my anticipation was added to by the fact that Del Toro, a filmmaker whom I have a lot of respect for, was attached as a producer. Seeing stills of the film on the lead up to its release wet my appetite even more, but nothing could truly prepare me for what I actually felt when I sat down, here in January of 2015, to watch the film. The animation, as I mentioned, is gorgeous. The story is told as a tour guide telling a group of school children the tale, and as we dart from world to world, seeing the assortment of vibrant and zesty characters, it is clear that this is not merely a silly animated film that wants to joke around with you for a couple of hours. Sure, there are plenty of jokes and laugh-out-loud moments here, and moments that will get belly laughs from kids and adults alike, but it’s what lurks deeper that truly stood out to me while watching this. The way it introduces the idea of the Day of the Dead and tackles the concept of loss head-on is refreshing and very, very unique. For obvious reasons, for decades and decades, the idea of death has been rarely discussed in the animated medium. Filmmakers don’t want to have their customers sobbing in the cinema, after all, but here, in The Book of Life, Langdale and Gutierrez have penned a script and created a story that speaks openly about it in a way that is reassuring, poetic and moving, showing how the specific cultural beliefs include a wonderful idea that as long as someone remembers you, you will live forever in the Land of the Remembered. Where, you ask? Well, this place is the visual manifestation of all those Day of the Dead decorations you’ve seen. Sugar skulls, candy, Spanish patterns, bright colours and an atmosphere of carnival excitement and pure life. It looks incredible and the visit to the land in the film is one of the standout moments.
I could gush for a while here, because there is just so much to praise about this film, and it is so easy to like. The cast, featuring a variety of “names” such as Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Danny Trejo and others do a top notch job and bring plenty of passion to their parts. The characters they play are really interesting and fun. There is music here, but it is here in a way that makes sense. The characters don’t just burst into spontaneous melody at the drop of a sombrero, but instead the music is introduced when main-character Manolo (Diego Luna) plays his guitar and sings, or festivals are occurring. A feast for both the eyes and the ears, Gutierrez has done something truly special here, and I am both excited and relieved at just how good it is.
Sure, it isn’t a flawless film and it has moments where the sweetness almost brought a little ache to my tooth, but it is damn well close to being one of the best animated films I’ve seen in the last year or two. It feels timeless in what it has to say and never drags on or feels like what it is saying is unnecessary. The Book of Life is one I urge you to watch, adult or child, because it is one of those occasions where you’ll be missing out on something just a bit special if you don’t. Hell, even the opening and closing credits had be entranced. Just fantastic.