Amidst the grand, cosmic chaos of the universe, I am certain of at least one thing: 3D glasses were invented for the viewing of Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life.
Words cannot do the dazzling animation justice; every scene pops like visual candy, every square inch pulsates with polychromatic pizzazz. The quirkily designed characters emit a distinctly Burtonesque aura, but even more exaggerated, more fantastical, and more elaborate. Some have complained that the movie fails as a glorification of Mexican culture because “the filmmakers literally put facial hair and sombreros on everything,” but this fixation on the clichéd is missing the point entirely; the tantalizing animation perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy of Mexican culture, while providing kids of all ethnicities with an exhilarating introduction to said culture through the lens of Mayan folklore.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday (and the original title of the film) dedicated to celebrating rather than mourning the dearly departed, and The Book of Life kicks off with an exploration of the day’s festivities in the small town of San Angelo. The movie’s presentation of the holiday manages the rare feat of making the uncomfortable beautiful, embracing the sentimental without tipping over into the maudlin. The emotional tone is less “smile-because-it-happened” and more “smile-because-it-is-still-happening”; after all, a film that partly takes place in the realm of the dead uses the word “life” in the title for a reason. And when our young protagonist’s father tells him that the dead are always with us, it works, partly because of the delicate artistry of the spirits that appear onscreen just beside him, and partly because The Book of Life wears its heart on its sleeve (or, actually, inscribed on Manolo’s guitar), and that lends a pure beauty to the movie that surpasses even computer generated animation at its finest.
The most colorful characters—literally and figuratively—are the mythical gods who reign over the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten: La Muerte lords over the former, and Xibalba grudgingly claims dominion over the latter. The duo bicker over who should get to rule the “more fun” dominion (the Remembered sure know how to party hard), then decide to settle things with a good, old-fashioned wager. They observe a love triangle emerging between the strong-willed María and her two best friends—Joaquín, the big-headed, big-muscled warrior, and Manolo, the kind-hearted, doe-eyed musician—and decide to place a bet on which strapping young man will end up marrying the fair lady.
What follows is a relatively standard monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, but there’s no harm in embracing a familiar narrative—especially because it allows the ways in which The Book of Life diverts from the traditional to shine even more brightly by contrast. For one thing, María is no typical object of affection, and not just because she knows kung-fu. She is reminiscent of Meg from Disney’s Hercules, whose “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this” line serves as a retroactive counterexample to the one-dimensional archetype of the Strong Female Character. (Though her gender politics tend to be a bit, well, confused, Zoe Saldana, who voices María, is certainly on a roll with her choice of characters; between María and her roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Saldana has a knack for infusing her characters with a mixture of idealized badassery and realistic vulnerability.)
But while the feminism of María is fairly basic (she disparages the notion that she is obligated to cook her future husband dinner), the feminism invoked by the two main male characters teaches the more subtle takeaway message that hobbies and traits don’t have to be so rigidly gendered. Joaquín’s character is, at first, the once-heralded model of hyper-masculinity, as evidenced by his pride over his mustache and his sword as well as his reliance on a medal that protects him from weakness. Manolo, meanwhile, espouses traditionally feminine traits such as sensitivity, aversion to violence, and devotion to music. In the end, both Joaquín and Manolo embrace a mixed identity that, above all, idealizes simple goodness.
The gorgeous visuals often outweigh every other aspect of the film (and that’s not a bad thing), but the soundtrack and the script deserve accolades as well. The humor is more often than not aimed at the younger audience members, but older audiences will recognize the influence of The Princess Bride, as the main story is narrated to a (hilariously delinquent) group of kids, punctuated throughout by their commentary and interjections. Add to that the protagonist’s experience with being “mostly dead,” as well as an unmistakable utterance of “as you wish.” The soulful music also enhances the visually stunning and narratively engaging adventure. Along with several original songs, co-written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams, a handful of timeless classics (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”) and contemporary hits (“I Will Wait”) are featured—and given a thematically appropriate mariachi-band spin.
With its weighty focus on death and its adherence to age-old tales, The Book of Life seems to at the same time treat kids as adults and adults as kids. If nothing else, the gorgeous animation alone is a reason to take the whole family to the theater. But The Book of Life is also the rare movie that glistens with a post-postmodernist optimism, savoring the victory of the lover over the fighter, and rejoicing in the vitality of storytelling. And you don’t need your 3D glasses to see that.