When the Academy Awards were announced this year there were two main complaints: only white performers were nominated in the acting categories, and the The Lego Movie was not nominated for the Best Animated Feature. I would contend however there was another animated film that should have been considered, which was this – a film with a mainly Hispanic cast.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro (director of Pacific Rim, co-screenwriter of The Hobbit trilogy) and the directorial debut for Jorge Gutierrez, The Book of Life is a movie connected with the legends of Mexico, in particular the Day of the Dead. The story is told by a museum guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate, Married… With Children) as she tells some troublesome kids on a school trip about various Mexican legends from “The Book of Life” which holds every story in the world.
The story begins with the wife and husband spirits of La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman, Hellboy), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. They visit a Day of the Dead festival in the town of San Angel where the two agree on a bet. There is a girl in the village named Maria Posada (Zoe Saldana, Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy) who is the subject of affection of two boys: guitar loving Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna, Milk) and Joaquin Mondragon (Channing Tatum, Foxhunter and as it happens The Lego Movie), whose late father saved the town from bandits. Xibalba bets that Joaquin will marry Maria and if he does then Xibalba will become the new ruler of the Land of the Remembered. La Muerte bets that Manolo will marry Maria and if so she will stop Xibalba from interfering with the lives of mortals. But Xibalba plays dirty quickly by giving Joaquin the all-powerful “Medal of Eternal Life”, giving him great strength.
As the story roles forward Maria is sent to a Spanish boarding school, Joaquin becomes the moustachioed town hero, and Manolo keeps playing on his guitar, given to him by Maria as a parting gift, where he sings various songs including (strangely) the works of Radiohead and Elvis Presley. But Manolo’s father Carlos (Hector Elizondo, Last Man Standing) forbids Manolo from playing music, insisting that he must train as a bullfighter like all of his ancestors before him. When Maria returns from Spain, both Manolo and Joaquin try to win Maria’s affections. Both men have ups and downs, but then Manolo seems to have the upper hand – until Xibalba decides to cheat again by using a snake to seemingly kill Maria. Xibalba tells Manolo that she can rescue Maria, but he has to die first. Thus Manolo goes on a journey across the Land of the Remembered, the Cave of Souls protected by the Candle Maker (Ice Cube) who oversees the lives of the living, and then to the Land of the Forgotten.
There are many things that are striking about The Book of Life. For me, the first was when the film opened and tells you it is made by 20th Century Fox, which is odd given that most of the time when Fox talks about Mexicans it is normally on the news and about how they should be allowed into America.
The main appeal of the film personally is the quality of the animation. When the story is narrated in the museum, the characters are acted out using dolls. Thus the characters when animated take on a doll-like blocky appearance. You can see the thin rods that connect all the finger joints for example in the characters for example. Plus you have the mixture of landscapes: the tranquil city of San Angel, the bright carnival atmosphere of the Land of the Remembered, the dullness of the Land of the Forgotten and so on.
The other reason to see this film is that it features a lot of actors who are not really well to most people in English-speaking countries because they mainly work in Mexico, so this actually quite a multicultural film, with Mexicans and Americans working together. If there is a major problem with it, it is the lack of recognition by things like the Academy Awards. Both The Book of Life and The Lego Movie have been hard done by.