Introspective on the 2014 “The Book of Life”

Since it didn’t come up on CoogLife on Nov. 2, I’m posting this movie reflection here.

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On Oct 29th, the UH University Center screened the Reel FX 2014 animated feature “Book of the Life.” This Guillermo del Toro-produced film is a remarkable love letter to the Mexican holiday that inspires its mythos.

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In the opening, children, audience surrogates of young modern viewers, visit a museum and are accosted by a chipper tour guide (Christina Applegate). She shares a story about three beings: the feisty Maria (Zoe Saldana), the kind Manolo (Diego Luna), and boastful Joaquin (Channing Tatum).

The conflict kicks off when two deities, the La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and mischievous Xibalba (Ron Perlman), implied to be an estranged couple on good terms, observe the mortals celebrating Dia de Los Muertos. In a dialogue not unlike an amiable Zeus-Hera dynamic, they take notice of a classic mortal conflict—a love triangle between two boys and a girl— and make a wager. Xibalba, bored of ruling the murky Land of Forgotten afterlife, makes a wager with La Muerte in hopes of trading realms to reign over. The kind-hearted La Muerte bets that the softhearted Manolo will marry Maria, while Xibalba champions the well-meaning but vain Joaquin.

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Zeus and Hera could learn some marital lessons from them

A kid interrupts the story and brings up this piece of gold to the tour guide: “So these ancient gods picked three little kids to represent the whole world?”

The Book of Life grasps the basic beats of fables and myths. I asked similar questions when perusing through Greek and Roman mythology. The gods perceived humans as free-willed chest pieces for their amusement, sometimes intervening in their free will. Why do the Greek deities favor certain mortals? Why do the gods amuse themselves at the mortals’ expense? These answers are now clarified and debated in literary college classrooms, but in childhood I cared less. All I had was the captivating story.

This is animator Jorge R. Gutierrez feature film directional debut. He dares to pack his first film with multiple narrative layers: a love triangle, a tradition vs. choice story, a village threatened by bandits, a tour guide entertaining children, but it all flows seamlessly. It’s incredible how this film still feels tidy in its multi-plots.

The animation reminds me of patterned illustration of a pop-up book. While we lament the decline of 2-D animation, Book of Life brings its own signature visual, cultural breath in patterned textures that are jewels to the eye. Because computer-generated Disney and Pixar animation frequently lean toward realism in their design, it makes their slapstick clumpy on-screen. But in this film, the character designs are rich and cartoony all at once so that the slapstick feels more at ease. It also renders rich, complex realms of the afterlife, not bound by the familiar binary of Heaven and Hell. And it turns out in the third act, there’s a horrifying stake even for the spirits residing in the Heavenly Land of the Remembered.

I do cringe at its attempt to cater to the younger demographic and modern sensibilities. It wasn’t necessary to provide “updates” with anachronistic: the hit-or-miss covers of pop songs, a heroine with girl-power attitude who suddenly displays kung-fu without buildup, or suave Channing Tatum’s cool-guy slang. Though much of its broader clichés—love triangle, gods messing with affairs of mortals, a man and woman struggling to defy traditions—are predominantly forgiven by the mythological framing where these tropes are more time-tested than tired.

Shamefully, Reel FX is not exactly a brand name like Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks, so the Book of Life did not receive much exposure and got shunted out of the Oscar ballot. With Pixar set to design its own Dia de Los Muertos rendition in their upcoming 2017 feature “Coco,” I have to question whether even Pixar could match the cultural breath of the Book of Life. It might be that “Coco” will be embedded more in the pop culture mainstream consciousness. But the Book of Life has now set a high bar for Pixar when painting a facet of Dia de Los Muertos.

My prayer is that more of the Book of Life universe will be green lit. The film does not end on a cliffhanger and concludes quite soundly, but creator Gutierrez himself stated that he intends sequels. From the film’s opening, we understand that the tale of Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin is just one chapter in a collection of hundreds of rich stories Gutierrez has yet to unleash.

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