Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Note: A previous version of my piece on The Book of Life appeared on The Fake Fangirl.
“Why is this movie so underrated???” is the top YouTube comment on a trailer for Jorge Gutierrez’s 2014 animated film The Book of Life. Why, indeed. A producing credit from the godfather of Mexican films himself, Guillermo del Toro, as well as a slate of overall positive reviews from critics wasn’t enough to catapult this visually hallucinogenic, hilariously referential CGI delight to the attention of wider audiences.
But as we learn from the movie itself, something thrives as long as we remember it, so I’d like to flip the script and do just that. Join me below, where minor spoilers await, and embrace the charming, witty wonder that is The Book of Life.
The Book of Life contains several elements that guarantee that a film will fast-track its way into my heart: visual spectacle, a rockin’ soundtrack, postmodernist humor, stories about stories, and of course, feminism. Great, now that you’re utterly convinced, go watch the movie!
I kid, I kid. Let’s dive in.
The Book of Life begins with a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) leading a sassy group of delinquents on a secret tour. “All the world is made of stories,” she says, “And all of those stories are right here: in the Book of Life.” The guide introduces the film’s most colorful characters—literally and figuratively: the mythical gods who reign over the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. La Muerte (voiced by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo) lords over the former, and Xibalba (smoky-voiced Ron Perlman at his finest) grudgingly claims dominion over the latter.
The duo bicker over who should get to rule the “more fun” dominion (the Remembered sure know how to party hard), then decide to settle things with a good, old-fashioned wager. They observe a love triangle emerging between the strong-willed María (Zoe Saldana) and her two best friends—Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the big-headed, big-muscled warrior, and Manolo (Diego Luna), the kind-hearted, doe-eyed musician—and decide to place a bet on which strapping young man will end up marrying the fair lady.
A note about the cast: As boyishly macho Joaquín, Channing Tatum plays the Channing Tatum-est role ever, and you can practically see Ron Perlman as Xibalba despite the fact that the film is completely animated. Plus: Ice Cube as the Candle Maker! During this repeat viewing, however, it is Diego Luna as Manolo who stands out the most. Now winning hearts and internet memes in the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Luna has scuffed his way into the public consciousness with his gritty, morally grey portrayal of Rebel pilot Captain Cassian Andor. But you must never forget about the time he crooned covers of Radiohead, Elvis Presley and Mumford and Sons in The Book of Life! Indeed, along with several original songs, co-written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams, a handful of timeless classics (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”) and more contemporary hits (“I Will Wait”) are featured with a thematically appropriate mariachi-band spin.
Words cannot do the dazzling animation justice; every scene pops like visual candy, every square inch pulsates with polychromatic pizzazz. The quirkily designed characters emit a distinctly Burtonesque aura, but even more exaggerated, more fantastical, and more elaborate. Some complained that the movie fails as a glorification of Mexican culture because “the filmmakers literally put facial hair and sombreros on everything,” but this fixation on the clichéd is missing the point entirely; the tantalizing animation perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy of Mexican culture, while providing kids of all ethnicities with an exhilarating introduction to said culture through the lens of Mayan folklore.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday (and the original title of the film) dedicated to celebrating rather than mourning the dearly departed, and The Book of Life kicks off with an exploration of the day’s festivities in the small town of San Angelo, while María, Manolo and Joaquín are still kids. The movie’s presentation of the holiday manages the rare feat of making the uncomfortable beautiful, embracing the sentimental without tipping over into the maudlin. The emotional tone is less “smile-because-it-happened” and more “smile-because-it-is-still-happening”; after all, a film that partly takes place in the realm of the dead uses the word “life” in the title for a reason. And when our young protagonist’s father tells him that the dead are always with us, it works, partly because of the delicate artistry of the spirits that appear onscreen just beside him, and partly because The Book of Life wears its heart on its sleeve (or, actually, inscribed on Manolo’s guitar), and that lends a pure beauty to the movie that surpasses even computer generated animation at its finest.
What follows is a relatively standard monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, but there’s no harm in embracing a familiar narrative—especially because it allows the ways in which The Book of Life diverts from the traditional to shine even more brightly by contrast. For one thing, María is no typical object of affection, and not just because she knows kung-fu. She is reminiscent of Meg from Disney’s Hercules, whose “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this” line serves as a retroactive counterexample to the one-dimensional archetype of the Strong Female Character. (Though her gender politics tend to be a bit, well, confused, Zoe Saldana, who voices María, is still on a roll with her choice of characters; between María and her roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Saldana has a knack for infusing her characters with a mixture of idealized badassery and realistic vulnerability.)
But while the feminism of María is fairly basic (she disparages the notion that she is obligated to cook her future husband dinner), the feminism invoked by the two main male characters teaches the more subtle take-away message that hobbies and traits don’t have to be so rigidly gendered. Joaquín’s character is, at first, the once-heralded model of hyper-masculinity, as evidenced by his pride over his mustache and his sword as well as his reliance on a medal that protects him from weakness. Manolo, meanwhile, espouses traditionally feminine traits such as sensitivity, aversion to violence, and devotion to music. Plus, he is constantly scolded by his father for apologizing – in song and in dialogue – but his deference gives him a key victory towards the climax of the film. In the end, both Joaquín and Manolo embrace a mixed identity that, above all, idealizes simple goodness.
Unsurprisingly, the self-awareness of the script leads to many tongue-in-cheek moments that elicit laughs from all types of audiences: a singing group of nuns that acts like a Greek chorus, a Romeo and Juliet-esque balcony wooing scene that is cut short by an influx of vaudeville and many, many others. My favorite callbacks beg comparison to The Princess Bride: the main story is narrated to a group of kids, punctuated throughout by their commentary and interjections. Just like during a particularly tense scene in The Princess Bride, one kid interrupts the main story with a semi-scandalized “we’re just kids!”
Yet The Book of Life, with its weighty focus on death and its adherence to age-old tales,manages to treat kids as adults and adults as kids – to the delight of both. If nothing else, the gorgeous animation alone is a reason to sit the whole family down for a Saturday night viewing. But The Book of Life is also the rare movie that glistens with a post-postmodernist optimism, savoring the importance of the lover and the fighter, and rejoicing in the vitality of storytelling.