A love triangle, destiny, and a wager between gods – all of that and more is in The Book of Life. The film, directed by Jorge Gutierrez, is an all encompassing love letter to Mexico and the Dia de Los Muertos holiday. The story is brought to vibrant life through breathtaking animation.
The story unfolds in a museum, as a group of trouble making kids gets a special tour apart from the rest of their class. They learn about Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin, three friends who live in Mexico. They meet them on a very special night. The three are at the cemetery with their families, honoring the dead. Manolo’s family gathers at the grave of his beloved mother, while Joaquin is alone at the monument of his great warrior father.
Manolo and Joaquin both have crushes on feisty Maria. Two gods of the dead, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) are watching the three. They make a bet on which boy will win Maria’s heart.
La Muerte chooses Manolo and Xibalba chooses Joaquin. Whoever wins will rule the land of the living, currently La Muerte’s domain, while the loser will be relegated to the Land of the Dead. Xibalba, unbeknownst to La Muerte, gives a medal to Joaquin that will ensure his immortality. The boy gleefully accepts.
Some time later, Maria is sent away to Spain to live in the convent by her father, since her behavior is not ladylike. There’s a tearful goodbye between the three friends. Maria tells Joaquin to always fight for what’s right, while she gifts a guitar to Manolo, telling him to always play from the heart.
As the years go by, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) becomes a fearless warrior, thanks to Xibalba’s medal. Manolo (Diego Luna) continues to nurse his musical ambitions, all while his father pressures him to follow the family tradition of bull fighting. When the two young men are reunited, it’s noted that they both are standing in some looming shadows. Joaquin has returned to their town on the day Manolo is to face his first bull, and Maria (Zoe Saldana) will be returning from the convent as well.
Manolo is unable to kill the bull, much to the consternation of his father. While the crowd taunts him, Maria beams with pride. And now the competition for her affection begins in earnest between Joaquin and Manolo. Maria’s father favors Joaquin, but she is coy about who she will choose. When Xibalba sees that he’s going to lose the bet, he devises a plan to send Manolo to the underworld. Now he must journey back, with the help of his departed family members, to be with Maria.
The Book of Life is alive with splendor. The artwork and unique designs play a significant role in this, but the story and characters are just as striking. Joaquin is cocksure but ultimately a sympathetic character who cares for his friends. Maria is smart, independent, and compassionate. She knows just what she wants. Even though it’s clear from a mile off that she and Manolo belong together, she doesn’t immediately fall into his arms. He has to work for her love. And then there’s Manolo. Too often, the theme of a character choosing their own dreams over family expectations can become trite. Here, Manolo chooses compassion and empathy, healing the years long conflict of his family’s bloody legacy. For a male character to reject dominance over nature and brazen masculinity is something we could use more of in stories.
Jorge Gutierrez rejected a familiar narrative as well. Mexicans and Latinos have not received noteworthy representation in Hollywood. Even oafish, irresponsible politicians parrot offensive stereotypes, reducing an entire group of people to mere criminals. But Gutierrez pushed back. He made art, heroes and heroines to counter those poor images. Reject those narratives and write your own stories.
“Anyone can die. Those kids will know how to live.”
May all stories live with the same intensity and color.