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


Castle in the Sky: Entering Miyazaki’s World With Guillermo del Toro @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

The first time I watched Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky I was twelve and sitting in my basement alone. I had been watching Miyazaki movies since I was nine, when I had that—I’m sure, all too familiar—realization courtesy of Princess Mononoke that “cartoons”, too, could be violent. At the time I ran an anime club out of my middle school’s English class, I collected Shonen Jump, and I could hold a five-hour conversation on the intricacies of InuYasha (yes, I was that kid). But even then, deep in the thralls of my anime obsession and willing to watch anything that came out of Japan (anything), I could feel that magical something that makes Miyazaki films almost perfect.

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I’ve grown up with that sense of magic. Ten years later, going to see Castle in the Sky at TIFF Bell Lightbox was a completely different experience. First of all, I most certainly wasn’t alone; by the time I got to the theatre (accompanied by my always-charming SO) there was only room in Cinema 1 for pairs to sit together on the balcony. It was a comforting balance between the aloneness of my once-childhood home and the insanity of the anime convention video rooms I frequented in High School.

Second of all, I most certainly wasn’t the only person in that room who could hold a five-hour conversation about anime.

With a sense of prideful glee, TIFF Artistic Director Noah Cowan announced their guest as, “Guillermo del Totoro!”—the introduction was marred only by the fact that del Toro was too focused on autographs and handshakes downstairs to be able to make it to the show on time. It took two more enthusiastic introductions and, assumedly, a handful of intimidated young TIFF staff to get del Toro onto the stage.

Castle in the Sky tells the story of Sheeta, a young girl in possession of a mysterious magical stone. When the airship castleinthesky
Sheeta is on is attacked by pirates after the stone, she falls from the ship and lands, unconscious, in a small mining community. Pazu, a young engineer/miner-in-training with dreams of finding the mythical floating castle Laputa, takes the girl home and nurses her back to health—at least, until the pirates and the army show up, both trying to steal the stone from Sheeta. Throughout the film, these three factions battle for possession of the stone that will lead them back to Laputa, and all of the power it possesses (If it sounds familiar, watch Miyazaki’s film and then watch Disney’s Atlantis. Yes, that’s right, Disney did it again—remember Kimba?).

Del Toro launched immediately into his love of Miyazaki films, explaining how My Neighbour Totoro changed his life (and that, later on, it was one of the only things that would keep his daughter from crying). He discussed his love of the futile gestures in Miyazaki, small character traits like the father in Totoro not being able to put his shoe on immediately or like Pazu not being able to cut the rope between himself and Sheeta when they first land on Laputa. Del Toro honoured the power of the female characters in Miyazaki films, so different from the repetitive and stereotypical character sketches of Hollywood. When asked by Cowan if Miyazaki had ever failed, del Toro had one question: would you ever ask whether Picasso had gotten the perspective wrong?

He then criticized Western film, discussing how much he hated adding plot summary or historical information to scripts; with great exasperation, he exclaimed that he just “wanted the fucking movie!”. Miyazaki gives you the movie. He gives you the world, the characters—notably, del Toro discussed the lovely simplicity of the features of Miyazaki’s characters—, and the beautiful settings. He respects his audience enough to assume that they will follow something intelligent. His films are experiences; every time you watch them, there’s something new. Films like Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, and Castle in the Sky (among others) carry with them the weight of a beautifully crafted novel; Miyazaki is a master of producing genre works worthy of critical acclaim.

This, perhaps, is the magic of Miyazaki; del Toro says that there are hints of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki in everything, bread crumbs of influence left all throughout today’s animation styles. You had a sense, watching him speak, that if he had had complete creative control over Pacific Rim it would have resembled a Miyazaki film significantly more than a mecha film in the canon of Cameron’s Avatar (white, expressionless male with a sad past saves all in genre setting). Miyazaki’s films pervade contemporary culture, engaging children and adults alike, winning Academy Awards while remaining heartwarming classics, and using genre in a way that makes it accessible across so many critical platforms.

The magic of Miyazaki is that everyone notices the magic.