Was it a movie I saw since August 22nd, 2009: Yes. #325.
1) I watched this about a week ago - on the actual Day of the Dead - but didn’t have time to write it because I live in Chicago and the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. So my priorities were a little different than usual.
2) Anyone here a fan of “El Tigre”?
Well the creator of that show - Jorge R. Gutierrez - was the writer/director of this film! Some El Tigre characters even cameo in the film’s opening, but you have to REALLY look for them.
3) The framing device of this film (a bunch of kids at a museum being told a story) is a classic fairytale/magical realism device that can be found in films such as Big Fish. It also gives the film a plot driven reason for it’s unique animation style (the characters looking like wooden figures).
4) This film has some really great humor.
Vendor Boy: “Churros! Churros! (A bird poops on the churros.) Frosted churros!”
5) I will talk about La Muerte and Xibalba as individual characters in just a second, but for now I want to focus on their relationship.
I’m not overly familiar with Day of the Dead lore outside of this film, but I think the idea of having the ruler of The Land of the Remembered (La Muerte, everything good and wonderful in the world) and the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (Xibalba, everything that is negative in the world) be lovers is a great idea. Their relationship is tense, volatile, and can be filled with conflict, but never is it abusive. Never is it hateful. You always get a great sense of love between these two and that’s what makes it work.
6) Ron Perlman as Xibalba.
These two wouldn’t work so well together if they couldn’t stand on their own as characters. And the work so well in that field because of equal parts writing, character design, and voice over work. Ron Perlman is a regular collaborator of Guillermo Del Toro’s, the executive producer on this film, and has worked in a number of animated project before (including VP Lancer in “Danny Phantom” and Clayface in “Batman: The Animated Series”). Perlman brings a roguish charm to all his characters, even when it’s just his voice. He’s interesting, rough, and just likable! And he makes Xibalba all those things. You’re never particularly rooting against him, even though he’s technically the villain. You’re just entranced whenever he’s on screen.
7) Kate del Castillo as La Muerte.
American audiences are not as familiar with Kate del Castillo as they are with Ron Perlman, although she is one of Mexico’s most acclaimed popular actresses. As Perlman does with Xibalba, Castillo brings genuine charm, likability, and charisma to La Muerte. As well as an added fierceness that lets you know this undead ruler can keep her own when head-to-head with her darker lover. You definitely get the vibe that La Muerte is the more dangerous of these two but also the kinder, and so much of that relies on Castillo’s performance.
8) Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin.
We first meet these characters and get a sense of their relationship as children, and it’s great. Yes Manolo and Joaquin both love Maria, but they’re friends first. ALL of them are friends! Later in the film Joaquin and Manolo remain friends even when vying for Maria’s affections, and they are friends with Maria before they are lovers. And I think it’s driven home by this statement from Maria as a child:
Maria [after Manolo and Joaquin fight over who’s she is]: “I belong to no one!”
They don’t belong to each other, they chose to be friends. They chose to be with together because they genuinely like each other. I love that.
9) A huge theme of this film is also seen in Maria’s, “I belong to no one!” line and that is the theme of being true to yourself.
Both Joaquin and Manolo have huge shadows they live in (a line which is actually uttered by Joaquin later): Joaquin’s dead father was a great war hero and Manolo’s father pushes him to be a bullfighter like all the men in their family have been. It makes for a unique conflict and a great message to kids of all ages: be yourself.
10) Maria as a character.
You get a real sense of Maria as a character when we first meet her. Not only does she have the wonderful line, “I belong to no one!” but she also shows her placement of morality over societal values by freeing animals slated for slaughter. Her father sends her off to a convent to become, “a proper lady,” but…it doesn’t really work. At least, she doesn’t become his definition of proper. She is loving, kind, sweet, but fiercely independent and someone who follows her heart above all else. Zoe Saldana voices Maria, and breathes such wonderful life into the character you forget she’s acting. Everything about Maria just feel so real it’s amazing.
11) The decision to compose the film’s soundtrack from popular music recorded specifically for the movie (the mariachi version of “I Will Wait For You” being the earliest example) as well as original songs composed by Paul Williams is a great one. The copyrighted songs never feel out of place and don’t distract from the plot, instead playing perfectly into the emotion of the scene. And the original songs are made for the moments which are purely story and pure character, so they could not possibly be represented by something which was already written because this story hasn’t existed before.
All the characters in this film are written with such life and depth that lead character Manolo couldn’t POSSIBLY be an exception. He has skills as a bullfighter, but is deeply conflicted by his duty to his family and his duty to his heart. But it’s all guided by love, something with is illustrated by the inscription on his guitar (a gift from Maria, nonetheless): “Always play from the heart.” It is Manolo’s defining characteristic and defining struggle: that he wants to be himself, not his father or anyone else.
Diego Luna just…ugh! So I’ve seen Luna in small roles before (The Terminal, Elysium) but this film makes me a HUGE fan of his! I’m really looking forward to his role in Rogue One BECAUSE I loved his performance in this film so much. Manolo sings more than any other character in the film, and Luna infuses each song with such sincerity and warmth it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with his performance as Manolo. And he treats each line of dialogue the same. Like Saldana as Maria, you don’t feel like you’re listening to an actor. You’re listening to Manolo.
13) Grandma is hysterical.
Grandma Sanchez [after Manolo refuses to kill a bull]: “Kids today, with their long hair and no killing stuff.”
Grandma Sanchez [after Manolo’s father says everyone in their family was a great bullfighter]:
She doesn’t have many lines but very nicely embodies the film’s wonderful characters and humor.
14) Manolo’s Father, Carlos.
I have seriously MIXED feelings about Carlos, and I think you’re supposed to. He shows a genuine desire to do the best for his son, he just doesn’t actually KNOW what’s best for his son. He pressures him into being a bull fighter because it’s the Sanchez way, and when Manolo expresses dissatisfaction with this his father shames him into doing it.
Carlos [to convince Manolo to be a bullfighter]: “Don’t you LOVE your family?”
(GIF source unknown [if this is your GIF please let me know].)
(PS, I find this line to be the sign of an abusive relationship but maybe that’s just me.)
BUT Carlos has genuine moments of love with his son. He encourages him to tell Maria how he feels, he comforts him when he’s missing his dead mother, he actually LOVES Manolo. Hector Elizondo’s performance and the writing gets this across in a great way, and I think the film is better for it.
15) Channing Tatum as Joaquin.
I do have to say of the trio of friends, Channing Tatum’s Joaquin is probably the weakest link. BUT that’s like calling one of The Lord of the Rings movies the worst in the trilogy: it was still nominated for best picture! I think it’s definitely because you know Joaquin is the third wheel, you know that Maria loves Manolo, and so it’s hard to get behind it. And you just can see that although they’re great as friends they wouldn’t make a good couple (despite Joaquin’s hopes to the contrary).
It would’ve been easy to write Joaquin as a jerk. And although he can be a bit pig headed here and there, you understand that he’s a genuinely good friend who truly cares for Maria (even though they’re not a great fit). Tatum brings a lot of this to the role, and even though I believe he’s the only non-Hispanic actor playing a decidedly Hispanic character (Ron Perlman gets a pass because Xibalba is an otherworldly creature) he has the same warmth and sincerity as Luna and Saldana have. It’s a nice way to round out the trio of friends.
16) I can’t tell if this joke is stupid or hysterical.
Pepe [when he and his brothers are in danger]: “I’m allergic to dying!”
Pancho: “Especially in the face!”
17) Joaquin’s biggest failing is probably that he buys too much into societal values, and his society’s values are…sexist. He is surprised that Maria reads, expects her to be a doting housewife (as all the high up men do), and that’s not what his heart wants it’s what he thinks should be.
18) “I Love You Too Much”.
This is the song Manolo sings to express his feelings for Maria, and it’s beautiful. Paul Williams has crafted a quiet, loving melody which pulls at your heartstrings and is sung beautifully by Diego Luna. I think it’s my favorite song in the film and one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard.
19) Maria is awesome, if that hasn’t been made clear already.
Maria [stopping a kiss after Manolo’s song]: “Did you think it was going to be that easy?”
She’s not the girl who falls head over heels for someone just because they sang to hear. It’s appreciated, but there needs to be more than that. I love it!
20) This film never subscribes to storied cliches. It’s not like Manolo can’t be an idiot too, as noted when he and Joaquin start to fight over Maria (which she has shown to never truly appreciate).
Maria: “You two are acting like fools.”
Manolo: “Wait, me too?”
You mean me, the nice guy romantic lead, is actually making a mistake? What kind of movie is this? (Hint: a great one.)
21) How long must it have taken to put out all those candles?
It shows devotion on Manolo’s part. As will the rest of the film, honestly.
22) One of the conflicts in this movie that gets me going the most is how unfair everyone is to Manolo. When they were children he stopped a wild boar from hurting people, but Joaquin got credit because he saved the mayor. As adults he’s ready to fight off bandits without a magic medal, but Joaquin gets credit because he does fight them off WITH a magic medal which protects him from harm. And when Maria dies from a snake bite everyone blames him. He’s not the snake! He didn’t bite her! So bug off!
23) My brother and I laughed so hard after we heard this line:
Student [after Manolo dies]: “What is it with Mexicans and death!?”
The only reason that line isn’t racist is because it was written by a Mexican in a film directed by a Mexican which is produced by a Mexican. So it’s okay to laugh.
24) The Land of the Remembered!
The Land of the Remembered is when this film’s visual style really takes off. Gutierrez’s imagination and the animation department’s skill bleeds through every scene in this wonderful place and it really pulls you into it’s world magnificently.
25) I mentioned in my Nightmare Before Christmas recap that Burton and company did a good job of establishing minor character with small introductions, and The Book of Life (although not Burton) follows in that tradition when we meet Manolo’s family.
Each family member - from the brutish Carmelo (voiced by the film’s director) to grandpa Luis (voiced by Danny Trejo) - is given a unique character with just a few seconds of screen time and dialogue which carries through until the end of the film. It works wonderfully.
26) This freaking line, after Jorge is established as wanting to have been a singer.
Manolo [after the two laugh about it]: “They crushed our dreams. Hilarious!”
Immediately there is a difference in what is expected from Carmen Sanchez (his mom) and what there is.
Manolo: “And I became a bullfighter, just like you wanted.”
Carmen: “Me? Are you crazy?”
It turns out Manolo’s father saying his mother wanted that was…uh…wrong, to put it mildly. It’s a nice juxtaposition which establishes her as a character and not just a plot device.
28) Dude, I love this dialogue.
Xibalba [after Luis says La Muerte would never hand over her kingdom]: “She lost a bet.”
Luis: “Oh. She would do that.”
29) You get a lot of Manolo’s tender side and playing from the heart, but it’s easy to forget that he’s still a headstrong Sanchez boy. He still has the fierceness of a bull fighter, even if that’s not what he wants to do. And we see this particularly when Manolo threatens to expose Xibalba. That may not be the smartest move, but it is fierce.
30) Did I mention this dialogue and humor is awesome?
Luis [after his body is knocked away from his head]: “Hey, my arthritis is gone!”
31) The Candlemaker
The Candlemaker rounds out the trio of immortals here, and falls in the middle. He is not about the Land of the Remembered or the Land of the Forgotten, he creates the candles (each candle representing a life). He is this big ball of happy childlike energy which is just fun to watch. And who’d they get to place this super upbeat and positive guy with hope and optimism dripping from him?
It’s a nice change of pace from Ice Cube’s more hardboiled characters to see him play such a wonder filled creature, and to do it so well too! His voice work stands up there with the rest of the cast in that you never think you’re listening to Ice Cube, you’re just watching the Candlemaker. It’s great.
32) ALL THE LADIES IN THIS FILM ARE FIERCE AS HELL!
Maria’s fierceness has been established above.
La Muerte getting pissed when she finds out Xibalba cheated on the beat is fierce!
MANOLO’S MOTHER SLAPS XIBALBA AFTER SHE REALIZES HE KILLED HER SON!!!
It’s a lot of fun to watch.
33) The final fight before Manolo can return to the land of the living is born from a wager he makes with Xibalba (he’ll face whatever challenge is thrown his way and win).
Xibalba: “What, do tell, is your worst fear?”
And then we get this:
But it turns out his greatest fear isn’t killing the bull, it’s being true to himself. This ties into what I mentioned earlier: Manolo’s defining characteristic and his struggle are the same in that he wants to be himself. And we get a wonderful song to tie it up, of the same quality as “I Love You Too Much” and it is simply called “The Apology Song”. (Manolo’s father, who’s dead at this point, said that a Sanchez never apologies but after the fight is incredibly proud of his son.) It’s a nice character climax for Manolo before we get the final fight of the film.
34) When you have no idea this is coming, it’s the funniest line in the film.
35) I give massive credit to the filmmakers for the way they handled Joaquin. He and Maria are set to be married now that Manolo is dead, and he knows Maria doesn’t want it so he’s about to talk to her about it before the town is attacked by bandits. Joaquin could have easily been some Gaston type but instead we got a sincere, honest character who deepens the conflict of the film.
37) The entire final fight of the film is wildly fun to watch.
It’s well paced, well choreographed, brings in all the characters we’ve met so far (living and dead), gives us a nice “dance” with Manolo and Maria, is filled with nice character moments, good humor, and has Joaquin decide he’s going to be his own man and try to sacrifice himself for his friends (it doesn’t work, he survives). It’s a great climax to the film.
38) “No Matter Where You Are”, the final song in the film, is a great ball of energy and love. But more than that, it let me know something I didn’t before…
Zoe Saldana can REALLY sing!
Just thought I’d share.
39) The final reveal, that Christina Applegate’s tour guide and the security guard are really La Muerte and Xibalba, is in classic tradition of magical realism and fairytale stories. It’s a nice ending to the film.
The Book of Life is great, and truly under appreciated. It’s representation of Mexican culture is unique in the animated film landscape, and gives the film a unique visual and musical style. The acting is topnotch, and you can feel through the writing/directing/character animation that it is truly a labor of love for all those involved. A great film which everyone should see.