Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead may seem like a somber celebration as the focal point of a children’s animated film. However, the roots of the Mexican holiday that typically spans from Halloween through All Saints’ Day revolve around the essence of what brings families together.
The Book of Life director Jorge R. Gutierrez (Nickelodeon’s El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) explains in the press notes: “It’s more than a holiday; it’s a philosophy. The core belief behind The Day of the Dead is that as long as you remember those who came before you, and as long as you tell their stories, cook their dishes, and sing their songs — they’re with you. They live inside your heart.”
Dallas-based animation company Reel FX ( Free Birds) has weaved a wonderful tale of enchantment in The Book of Life, which turns the macabre aspect of death and dying into a mythical, magical, kid-friendly world.
The story is narrated by tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate), who takes a busload of juvenile delinquents into the catacombs of a museum to relay a lesson on the Book of Life. The book tells the stories of every soul on the planet. At the center of the universe is Mexico, where families on the Day of the Dead remember their dearly departed with fiestas, parades and special tributes.
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In the small village of San Angel, lifetime friends Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin ( Channing Tatum) and Maria (Zoe Saldana) are trying to carve their own paths in the world. Manolo comes from a long line of bullfighters and is a natural in the ring, but his sensitive heart and musical soul won’t allow him to commit the final act of slaying a bull. Joaquin yearns to be as courageous as his fallen-soldier father at all costs. Maria is a modern maven who is constantly being pushed to traditional ways by her overbearing father, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui).
Unbeknownst to the children, they become the subjects of a love triangle with otherwordly consequences.
La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and her unfaithful, estranged husband, Xibalba (a dastardly Ron Perlman), who oversees the Land of the Forgotten, wager on which boy can win the heart of Maria. La Muerte believes in the fundamental goodness of humans and bets on the noble Manolo. On the other side, deceitful Xibalba loves to toy with mortals and plays with Joaquin’s competitive streak by giving him an emerald medal that gives him everlasting life.
Thus begins Manolo’s epic journey filled with gorgeous scenery through the Land of the Remembered, where souls whose families keep them in their minds are treated to a heavenly afterlife filled with “epic fiestas every day and all-you-can-eat churros”; the forsaken Land of the Forgotten, where souls who are not remembered spend perpetuity alone; and the Cave of Souls, where a goofy Candle Maker (Ice Cube) helps put the Book of Life into perspective.
Produced by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, The Book of Life’s meticulous, eye-popping visuals alone would be reason enough to upgrade to a 3-D seat. But once you hear the inspired renditions of Radiohead’s Creep and Biz Markie’s Just a Friend and the eclectic score from Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla ( Brokeback Mountain, Babel), you will be hooked on this tongue-in-cheek tale of redemption and romance.
The back-and-forth between the story and the narration was a bit jarring at first but became useful as a comedic tool during the darker parts of the plot. What comes to light in this film is the sweet earnestness and devotion of protagonist Manolo, as when he tells Maria: “I may not be the town hero, but I swear with all my heart that I will never stop loving you.”
If you have to choose one Halloween treat this season, this is the one to savor.