Any film associated with Guillermo del Toro is worth a mention for its ability in trying to do something unique, and The Book of Life is no different. While only featuring the big-name Mexican-turned-Hollywood director as a producer, his influence, along with others, are steadily felt in the film’s narrative and themes. Meanwhile, director Jorge R. Gutierrez’s co-written script with Doug Langdale is simply captivating and, dare I say, masterful. With plenty of heart and humour, it celebrates the Mexican/Latin-American culture and traditions surrounding Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) that is sadly left forgotten and overshadowed by the recently successful Disney-Pixar film Coco that burst onto the scene three years later. Using a supernatural overtone, loveable characters, mariachi covers of songs like ‘Creep’ and ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’, and a visually unique 3D-animation style that resembles wooden-blocks brought to life, The Book of Life is a hidden gem that everyone needs to see to truly experience its onscreen magic.
Telling the story of Manolo Sánchez (Diego Luna), Joaquín Mondragon Jr. (Channing Tatum), and María Posada (Zoe Saldana), The Book of Life begins with La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and her husband Xibalba, thruler of the Land of the Forgotten, making a bet on which of the two boys María should marry. As the story unfolds and Xibalba fears of losing the bet, he tricks Manolo in believing María is dead and offers him the chance to join her in the Land of the Remembered. However when Manolo accepts, he is whisked away only to find out María is still alive, and it forces him to journey back to the Land of the Living and reunite with his true love once again. It’s a story that seems relatively run of the mill, but its fusion of Mexican folklore and culture gives it a distinct narrative styling that’s hard not to love, and only accentuated by the script’s great use of comedy. It’s these accessible moments of humour, through its comedic characters who take the form of a mariachi band, that offer some of the most raucous laughs I’ve ever experienced. In trying to make you laugh on a consistent basis whilst telling a heartwarming experience about loyalty, love, forgiveness and braveness, it foregrounds key lessons for all kids to learn that every great family film should set out to achieve.
The film also has a distinctly great cast with Hollywood heavy-weights like Zoe Saldana, Ron Perlman, Channing Tatum and Diego Luna, as they sparkle with their personalities. Each character has something that seems fundamentally different to them, and their actor’s voices only lend to this effect. Whether it be Perlman’s gruffness that works perfectly with antagonist Xibalba, or Channing Tatum’s turn at the falsely confident and cocky Joaquín Mondragon Jr., all the actors are perfectly cast for their role and it helps to breathe an aspiration of multiculturalism into the narrative. The film uses its varied cast not to exclusively make its celebrations for Mexicans/Latin-Americans only, but as a cultural phenomenon that deserves to be appreciated by all audiences whether they’re Mexican or not.
It’s a shame that The Book of Life isn’t as much of a household film like Coco (which is arguably overrated) and I truly reckon this is a superior film and makes it as one of my favourite family films of all time. Perhaps because it doesn’t boast the backing of big production companies like Dreamworks or Pixar is one of the reasons it never received the limelight it undoubtedly deserves. It was hardly a huge financial success, only managing to double its production budget (a budget which doesn’t account the costs of advertising), but money aside, it’s a success for all children as it’s a joyous romp through Mexican culture that has a light-hearted tone and excels in what it sets out to achieve: making children laugh.
Watch the trailer for The Book of Life below: