Broadening Cultural Horizons in Animation

The Book of Life
Illustration by Sarah Crawley

Only recently has the movie industry begun to move away from making yet another adaptation of Shakespeare or a classical European fairytale such as “Cinderella”. However, even with the upcoming release of Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson, or the recent Macbeth with Michael Fassbender, there’s still a long way to go before other cultures, with their traditions and folktales, get the attention they deserve.

Despite the rather high ratings, Guillermo del Toro’s 2014 animated masterpiece The Book of Life remains in the shadows. One reason might be the fact that it isn’t Disney, but rather Twentieth Century Fox, which released the movie, and the lack of a rather greedy franchise (hello, Frozen) means the movie will reach a smaller audience. So why exactly should one watch it?

The movie begins with a group of troublemaking children who are dropped off at a museum, and are taken by the museum guide, Mary Beth, on an alternative sort of tour. Led into a colourful room filled with sugar skulls and food, they listen to the story of “The Book of Life” and the town of San Angel. According to Mexican folklore, the afterlife is divided into two worlds: the Land of the Remembered, ruled by the beautiful and kind La Muerte, and the Land of the Forgotten, ruled by the cunning and bored Xibalba. On one particular Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday which falls on the second of November annually, they come up to the human world where Xibalba complains of how tired he is of ruling over the gray and dreary Land of the Forgotten. After spotting three children, Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria, the two gods make a wager on which of the two boys will marry Maria. The winner gets to rule the Land of the Remembered.

The idea of gods interfering with human activities is far from new—one only needs to remember the shameless activities of Zeus, or the contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, which arguably led to the Trojan War. It is also unsurprising that a god such as Xibalba, who rules the darker half of the afterlife, feels like he has been deprived of the “fun” position, and so resorts to trickery when he sees that he is about to lose the wager, as Maria loves Manolo rather than Joaquin. At the same time, the movie gives the hero the opportunity of calling the god out on his lie and winning back what he has lost, in this case, for Manolo, his life. It is here that the movie resorts to another familiar but highly relevant topic even today: self-acceptance.

As a Sanchez, Manolo is expected to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a great matador. However, such a lifestyle is far from his mind; he instead declares that he wants to be a guitarista. Joaquin is also shown to be struggling to live up to the shadow of his deceased father, General Mandragor, in protecting the town from the bandit Chakal. He is involved with the second act of trickery that Xibalba perpetrates in order to secure his victory in the wager, in possession of the Medal of Everlasting Life. Of the two men, Manolo receives a much more satisfactory “resolution” to his dilemma when he makes a wager with Xibalba to win back his life, while the viewer is presented with only a couple of minutes near the end where Joaquin mentions his intention of sacrificing himself to save Manolo and the city. Even though the two characters face the same dilemma of having to live up to the standards their families impose upon them, there is still the “favourite” who receives a more complete character development.

Another problem related to character building and a somewhat unevenly paced plotline is the character of Maria. From the beginning the viewer knows that she is not (or at least is not meant to come across as) the damsel in distress—her response to Manolo and Joaquin’s argument over which of them she “belongs to” is that she is her own person and belongs to no one. Even after spending years at a convent in Spain, she shows she hasn’t lost her spark, calling out Joaquin when he begins stereotyping women as having to cook, clean, and be at the beck and call of their husbands. But only twenty or so minutes later, the viewer finds themselves at a scene where Maria admits her love for Manolo, whereas a few scenes back she chastised him for thinking that serenading her would win her over. There is a lot going on plot-wise in the movie, and Maria’s occasional regressions in personality could be considered forgivable if one remembers the movie is only 95 minutes long, and compares it to other popular animated movies which are not without faults (yes Frozen, I’m still talking about you).

The movie’s most redeeming quality, one which I’d argue makes the shortcomings of plot and character even more forgivable, is the animation style. The entire experience is like being surrounded by constant bursts of colour, from the vibrant town of San Angel and the character costumes to the Land of the Remembered with its parade floats and La Muerte’s castle. The most interesting feature, and one which I appreciated most as an artist, is the slight difference in animation style that occurred when the story switched from the modern-day setting of the museum and Mary Beth’s story, to the town of San Angel, to the characters in the afterlife. The inhabitants of San Angel are made to look like wooden dolls, with distinctly wooden-like fingers and “boxy” joints that heighten the folk atmosphere. In the afterlife, characters are instead made to look like skeletons, while their faces are made over with elaborate swirls and flowers that are traditionally found on sugar skulls for Dio de Los Muertos, as well as on the faces of Mexicans as they apply makeup that day. There is a certain sense of genuineness that really shone through in the animation style. Though the movie fell a bit short with the characters and plot, its animation brought to mind the way the imagination would go wild during story time as a child.

The Book of Life is, first and foremost, a love story, intertwined with the message that one must chase after their dreams and carve out a future for themselves, rather than getting stuck within rigid ancestral frameworks. It is no surprise who Maria ends up with in the end, and for someone looking for a movie that is heavier on the cultural aspect, this movie might not be ideal. However, it is worthy of admiration due to the sense of genuineness and good intentions it gives off from start to finish, drawing you in with its colour, humour, and musical experience. At a time when the priority remains making more money and the initial curiosity and magic of animation and film has arguably gone shaky, there are still those like The Book of Life that, though they stumble and mess up occasionally, nonetheless leave you with a smile.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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