Ay caramba, tu joven amantes.
As children, we were told many fairy tales that filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. We looked at the pictures in our tiny children’s books as our parents narrated the words to us, but did we ever stop to think about where these fairy tales came from? The Three Little Pigs came from England. The Little Red Riding Hood, London. The Fountain of Youth, Japan. The Little Mermaid, Denmark. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Germany. So many stories have come from so many places all around the world that by the time they reach us, we have “cleansed” it of it’s culture and Americanized it for our own comfort.
Here, we have Jorge Gutierrez’s own fairy tale called The Book Of Life, and for the sake of the movie I’m glad it didn’t succumb to mainstream appeal by having it take place in Colonial America. The Book Of Life is splendid, a wonderful, uplifting, joyous, and immensely entertaining animation engulfed and inspired by the culture Gutierrez came from. Think about how quickly you are swept away when you read the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and you can imagine how this film sweeps you up in that exact same way.
Told as a story within a story similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, The Book Of Life follows a group of schoolchildren through a museum as they are told the tale of Manolo (Diego Luna), a Mexican bull fighter who is fighting for the heart of his childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana). His closest friend and rival, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is also fighting for her love, and when they finally see each other after many years apart, they begin their pursuit for Maria’s love.
Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a heavy secret hides behind their innocent intentions. The spirits of the afterlife La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the world of the remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the one who rules the world of the forgotten, have placed a bet on these three friends. If Manolo ends up marrying Maria, La Muerte wins and gets to rule both the land of the remembered and the forgotten. If Joaquin marries Maria, Xibalba wins and he gets to rule the land of the remembered. The world of the undead is at stake here, and it’s up to Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin to set things right.
What do I say about an animated children’s film that’s based around Mexican fables and customs? The Book Of Life is a wonderful animation: bright, vibrant, colorful, and lively all at once. Writer/director/animator Jorge Gutierrez has a careful eye for detail, and does well in visually adapting to different scenes, settings, and moods.
In one scene, after one of the supporting characters die, the setting suddenly becomes dark. The sun drops. The candles burn out. A cloudy fog envelops in the sky as rain drops pellet onto the ground. In the very next scene, however, we see the world of the remembered from this deceased person’s perspective, and it is lively colors light up with shiny, gold-brick pathways illuminating everywhere and with Churros and balloons floating as far as the eye can see.
This is what I mean when I say the animation is versatile: it’s attentive, eye-catching, and delightful, demanding your attention the minute you lay your eyes on it. But it’s not just the animation that works so well with this movie. The Book of Life is entrenched and inspired in its own culture, living and breathing the Mexican customs though every frame of its run time. There is one work that Gutierrez did this with before The Book Of Life, and that is the Annie award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Now we have The Book of Life, and I feel it will spur on many Mexican children and families to pick up their heritage and be proud to represent it. In a day and age where Hollywood feels they need to Americanize everything, The Book of Life is a Godsend.
Everything else in this film functions exactly as it is supposed to. The story is mostly formula in that there has to be a good guy, a bad guy, a forbidden love, a big fight scene at the end, and a happy ending. The voice cast is solid, and Channing Tatum didn’t annoy the living daylights out of me for a change. And the music by Gustavo Santaolallo is pristine and authentic, with the plucking of the Mexican guitar strings filling your ears with wonderfully harmonic sound.
But make no mistake. The best thing about this film is the inspiration Gutierrez instills in it, the inspiration that his parents most likely instilled in him when he was still just a little boy. I hope there will be a children’s novelization of this film in the future and that it too will inspire children of all ages, regardless of their heritage.