It’s been well over a year since I first attempted to watch The Book of Life (2014). Switching off after only a few minutes, writing it off as just a kids film a little else really. It took the DVD release of Coco (2017) for me to finally track down the earlier film and see if I could watch them both. Well I’m half way through what is another double film review, with a focus on the shared of the Mexican festival – The Day of the Dead. My thoughts on both are below.
For most non-Mexicans the very idea of a holiday about the dead is too dark to swallow. However if films has me taught me recently it’s not as bad as it all sounds. My first interaction was as late as the opening of Spectre (2015) as Daniel Craig’s Bond as he evades his latest enemy during an exciting street festival in celebration of the festival. That’s probably the same for most of the general public. You would have otherwise had to visit Mexico during its duration one year to really understand and embrace what’s actually an ancient holiday that has evolved overtime yet stayed true to the roots of remembering the dead. A three-day festival that begins on 31st October, culminating the day itself on 2nd November (at the time of writing it was celebrated 1 week ago). What can take up to a year in preparation, families and loved ones build memorials, alters and buy gifts to decorate the graves of loved ones. The nearest Christian faiths come to this is All Saints Day 1st November, which celebrates all known and lesser-know saints, so a bit more exclusive to those special people of the faith.
As I began The Book of Life for a second time I wanted to see it through, I had forgotten just where I turned off. I had accepted that I’m not really the intended audience for this film. It was the character design that first caught my attention. The school children arriving at the museum felt too rubbery yet unique, maybe this is to distinguish them from the characters who we’re supposed to be really investing in. When the more attractive and decidedly more confident tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) takes over, they’re sneaked in through a secret entrance to a Mexican display. Hoping to engage these young teenagers with a love story – rather than dull historical facts that would lose their interests. We’re shown a few stories before settling on one surrounding the Day of the Dead.
A festival that honestly shows a stronger warmer connection to their departed loved ones. Explaining that loved ones stay in one of two worlds in the afterlife – when just departed a colourful world of the remembered and another of the forgotten. The concept is both comforting and disturbing, reminding us of the power of memories to ensure that the departed will still exist among the living in the form of either memories or stories that are carried down through future generations. Of course film is the ideal medium to ensure you remembered long after you die, yet it takes a someone to watch a film to acknowledge that someone once forgotten lives on.
A wagers made between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) overseer of the remembered and ruler of the forgotten Xibalba (Ron Perlman) that focuses on who a young Maria will marry, either a sensitive young boy Manolo who loves his music over his families bull-fighting heritage, or a macho boy who wants a moustache Joaquin who wants to be courageous. The three of them are thick as thieves, the freeing of pigs is the last straw for her father, who sends her away to a finishing school, only to return when she has come of age. The design of the Mexican’s is much more detailed, wireless marionettes that are flawlessly animated in the very heart of Mexico. We are no longer in a dusty old museum in America, this is a world away from what we believe we know about the central American country. The outcome of the wager would determine who looks over either of the two worlds once and for all.
Time passes and the children grow up, Manolo (Diego Luna) into a promising young bull-fighter, if only he would kill the bulls he defeats. Whilst Joaquin (Channing Tatum) has become the bravest, revered soldier to live among them. His chest covered in medals, including one that ensure eternal life (given to him as a child by Xibalba), giving him an unfair advantage in the wager and Joaquin an unwavering strength in all his fights and scrapes. Something that Manolo just doesn’t have – pitting human against superhuman, whose a woman to fall for.
We enter the middle of the film now as both men compete for Maria’s heart and hand in marriage. The act is full of warmth and gentle jokes, most meant for the children, whilst a few land and are intended for us adults. We hope that Manolo get’s the girl, it’s his journey that sees him push harder to win her over, not so much relying on a heavy chest of medals and a moustache to hide behind. The animation again is flawless throughout, what may looks like caricatures and some appear to heavy to realistically stand up. The adulthood depicted reflects the daunting childhood view from below, whilst keeping the tone and plot understandable to the younger audience who are drawn into this wonderfully inspired version of Mexico.
It’s a series of snakes bites and bandits that bring us hurling into another world of actions, drawing inspiration of Romeo and Juliet and Manolo makes the ultimate sacrifice before facing his demons to be reunited with his love. We explore the world of the remembered as one giant non-stop carnival, something that only animation can really achieve and produce such awesome sights. Surrounded by family, some he knew so well, and others he only heard about, the memories of them still very much alive. It’s a comforting sight to see that we maybe reunited with all those that we have lost. Manolo has to face his fears and accept who he truly is for a chance to be reunited with Maria after learning of another twist in the film.
Leading to a finale that is packed with fun and plenty of action that again only animation can achieve, a few surprises along the way. It shows how a festival can be really explored showing both great respect for another culture, whilst also having plenty of fun along the way. If I was to have one complaint about The Book of Life it would be in the casting, trying to please two audiences as it combines a Latin and North American cast. Part of me wanted the makers of the film to go completely authentic, a rich Mexican story with half of the main cast being of Latin American origin. Or am I going to far, being politically correct, wanting Mexican’s to play Mexicans etc, to be true and authentic to what the film is about and does so well.
Now I wonder the more recent Pixar film: Coco measures up, do the same faults arise? How does the plot explore the festival at a time when relations between the United States and Mexico are so fractured by the threat of a Trumps wall being built across the remainder of the vast open border. All my questions will be answered soon enough.
It’s been exactly a month since I caught the earlier film whilst Coco has been waiting patiently on the shelve as life has been happening in between along with a number of other films. Now I can say I’ve caught them both. The latter Pixar film which only earlier this year earned itself two Oscars has really moved me today, probably slightly more than The Book of Life did a month ago.
Before I address the use of the day of the dead theme it’s hard to not ignore the clear differences, released on a few years apart, they would have shared at least a year in production. The styles are very different, one very stylistic and not constrained as much to an in-house style. Reel FX Creative Studios were able to go to town more on creating characters that very much part of their own unique world. Whilst Pixar have a certain duty to see that their character designs conform to a certain style. It can be argued that you can’t compare a character from Coco easily to one from say Up (2009), technology has allowed the development of character design to change overtime. They are more humanised with some caricature elements, embellishing some features.
Another point is that the focus of the film is not so much with the celebration of the day of the dead. If anything is more coincidental, with the events happening on that day instead. Miguel’s (the focus of the film) family choose to celebrate at home, away from any musical interference. Music again plays a very integral part too. Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) much like Manolo (Diego Luna) wants only to play music, it’s the families wish to carry on the family trade, be that bull-fighting or as for Miguel a shoe-maker. Miguel is a young boy, staying very much in the tradition of childhood heroes at Pixar, although they are known to go for adult fish and Monsters. Maybe the focus on the child has allowed for a wider audience, you don’t need to be an adult to understand how to win your families approval, whilst winning the heart of the woman you love may take a bigger leap for a child. Not to say that child can’t understand the need to find your true love, keeping the focus on the love of music in Coco is where the film stays.
Visually (away from character design) the film is more steeped in reality before delving into the rich Mexican heritage for the land of the dead once more. I’m glad that it wasn’t a non-stop carnival or I would have given up right there and then. Instead we have another magical world that shows that the studio is continuing to push what they can do It’s very much a unique and colourful vibrant, however it’s not so expansive as the earlier film. It relies the dead having to exit and enter the land of the dead as if it were Disney Land, starting with Main Street before waiting for the 12 O’clock parade. It reminded me of Zootopia (2016) with its beauracracy before we meet Miguel’s deceased family. It’s a reunion thats reflected in the earlier film also, even sharing the same hate (not love) for music. I felt that there was a reliance of too familiar iconography.
The boys entrance into the land of the dead is through what he believes to be a guitar that belonged to his great-great grandfather, believed to be the late singer and actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a hero of the boys. Accidentally arriving he needs his families blessing to return to the land of the living. A blessing that he wants allowing him to play music. His family won’t give it to him, so he sets out on his own to find de la Cruz a man who he believes will give him the blessing that will set him free. There’s only one catch, he has until midnight before his body transforms into a skeleton, whilst in the earlier film Manolo is already dead before he returns back to out world.
Miguel’s followed by an unlikely character – Hector (Gael García Bernal) who the boy believes can lead him to the singer. One of the many who are on the verge of being forgotten and disappearing completely. The concept of grieving his handled far more sensitively. For a deceased person to stay alive in the afterlife they need at least their photo to be displayed to stimulate memories with the living to be passed on. The emotions piled on after a twist in the plot is revealed that audiences can’t help shed a few tears at. Pixar know how to tug at the heart-strings, not only are we exploring a very sensitive subject at a level that everyone in the family can understand they add another contemporary layer that you can’t escape.
Both films richly explore the festival using both male characters, The Book of Life is not restricted by the trappings of a studio steeped in history with story and character requirement and just delves into an adult story told at a level that the family can all enjoy. Whilst Coco is playing more with emotion far more effectively, coming from director Lee Unkrich that made a generation who grew up on Toy Story cry on a number of occasions (no matter how many viewings) in Toy Story 3 (2010), they know what they are doing with their eyes shut. It’s hard to say I have a preferred film they are equally effective, I cried at both at times which is something I’m not afraid to admit, I was emotionally engaged both times, proving that the films work perfectly. I would be more than happy to drop by these films anytime.