¡Feliz Día de los Muertos! It’s November 2nd, known commonly in Christian liturgical calendars as All Souls’ Day, and frequently in Hispanic countries as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased). Festivals to honor the ancestors are a universal cultural phenomenon, but the expression of “Day of the Dead” in the popular imagination with its characteristic trappings is a confluence of folk Catholicism and pre-Christian Mesoamerican (Aztec in particular) indigenous traditions from parts of Mexico. The 2014 American film The Book of Life, which just opened a few weeks ago, is a rollicking romp set with this backdrop of Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, directed and co-written by Mexican animator and creator Jorge Gutiérrez. Though I am of a different Hispanic descent (Ecuadorian to be exact), I was excited to see a children’s movie celebrating any Latin American culture when the vast majority have backdrops of European folklore. I went in hoping for a lot, and left disappointed and offended.
The bookend plot features a small group of schoolchildren on a field trip to a museum, where a guide takes them to an exhibit on Mexico and tells them the main tale. We are also introduced to a modified Latin American cosmology—the departed who are remembered live on in the cheery and festive Land of Remembered, ruled by the kind and benevolent Muerte, modeled after La Catrina/La Calavera Catrina, and those who are forgotten are in the cold and dismal Land of the Forgotten, ruled by the demonic Xibalba (always pronounced incorrectly in the movie with a “z” or “s” sound at the beginning, instead of the proper “sh” sound; not to mention it’s a Mayan concept, not Aztec). In the mortal coil, we are shown the town of San Angel, and are introduced to the “three amigos”: Manolo, Joaquín, and María. We first meet them as young children in a Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos celebration. Manolo is sensitive, with a passion for music, while Joaquin is an aspiring adventurer, and both dote on their fiesty, animal-loving friend María. Because gods love a wager, Muerte and Xibalba make a bet over who will end up winning María’s heart and marrying her—Muerte’s chosen one is Manolo, while Xibalba chooses Joaquín, and grants him an amulet of everlasting life, which gives him powers of invulnerability.
The three youngsters, despite their differences, are inseparable, until María’s father sends her off to get an education at a European convent. Distraught at their friend leaving, the boys nevertheless grow up following their familial expectations: Joaquín as a military hero and Manolo as a bullfighter, in spite of his continued passion of music and disdain for violence. María finally returns one day, and a great celebration is held in San Angel, including Manolo’s bullfighting debut. His refusal to kill the bull wins María’s admiration, but his father tells him he has disgraced the Sánchez family line. Meanwhile, María’s father wants her to marry Joaquín, so that he will be around to help defend against the threat of the evil bandit Chakal. However, María finds herself more drawn to Manolo. To prevent losing the wager, Xibalba sends a snake to bite her. Manolo carries her body back to the people of the town, and leaves, completely heartbroken, only to be bitten by the same snake.
He finds himself in The Land of the Remembered, reuniting with family members past, including his own mother. But it turns out that María was not actually killed by the snakebite, just unconscious. Manolo vows to return to the world of the living, but first must find and seek out the help of Muerte—with Manolo dead, María was going to marry Joaquín for the security of her city, so Xibalba had won the bet, trading realms with Muerte. As his ultimate test, Manolo must defeat all the bulls killed by the Sánchez bullfighters, which merge into a mega-ultra skeleton bull monster. Instead of using his sword, Manolo picks up his guitar and sings a song of apology, asking forgiveness of the bulls, which dissipate at his heartfelt tune. Having passed the test, Muerte, Xibalba and a God-like figure known as the Candle Maker bring Manolo back, and just in time! Chakal has arrived to ravage San Angel and steal the Medal of Everlasting Life from Joaquín.
María leads the people of the town in armed revolt against the roving bandits, and together the three friends are reunited in stopping Chakal once and for all. Joaquín is going to sacrifice himself to save them all when Chakal is going to suicide bomb the public square (this is in a kids’ movie, you guys!), but at the last minute, Manolo pushes him out of the way and takes his place. Fortunately, and unbeknownst to Manolo, Joaquín had slipped him the Medal of Everlasting Life, so Manolo is spared from dying again. María and Manolo wed, lived happily ever after, and Muerte and Xibalba make amends—and kiss. Did I mention that they are past lovers or something? Very unnecessary. Back in the present, the field trip ends, and as the bus takes the kids back to school, it is revealed that the museum guide is secretly none other than Muerte herself, and Xibalba is another museum worker. ¡El fin!
The Book of Life actually sounds like a somewhat decent children’s adventure, if also unnecessarily convoluted at points. There were some good messages about honoring and remembering our loved ones who have passed on, though I would say the biggest message was about being true to yourself, an important message for youth in any time and place. Manolo’s main struggle was that of standing up to the expectations of family and machismo that pushed him to be a bullfighter. In the scene where he is fighting the bull spirits of his ancestors, there is a poignant image where we see his sword stuck in the ground by his guitar and he must choose which one to grab. When he defeats the bull with his guitar and song, the narrator explains, Manolo’s biggest fear wasn’t killing a bull, his biggest fear was being himself. The biggest stickler in the whole plot is of course the inciting gods’ wager—pitting a girl as a prize to be won between two male competitors. Even though María time and again proves her mettle as a Strong and Independent Woman, and all her choices as an adult are clearly her own, the whole backdrop of the wager leaves a displeasing tarnish on the film.
A quick but important sidebar: when discussing Manolo’s onus of continuing the Sánchez bullfighting line, the film completely disregarded a pretty neat and important custom—Spanish-speaking countries typically follow a two surname system that recognizes paternal and maternal family lines. This is such a rarity in a world that often implicitly ignores maternal heritage by insisting on a single, patrilineal surname. Manolo wouldn’t have just been Manolo Sánchez, he’d be Manolo Sánchez Álvarez, for example (I don’t think we are given either of his mother’s surnames, of which he would have taken the first). It’s a subtle slap in the face to ignore his second, matrilineal family name, a custom many Hispanic Americans give up in a country that only has use for one family name.
I’m glad the writers clearly situated the story in Mexico, instead of just some generic Latin American place; the Day of the Dead that we see characteristically depicted here is something unique to Mexico (and not all regions of Mexico). Other Latin American countries may have something similar, but it is generally not nearly as extensive and has differing customs. In my mother’s country of Ecuador, for example, the most characteristic custom is to serve a special drink called colada morada with a special bread called guaguas de pan. Presenting one solitary, and false, “pan-Hispanic” culture depreciates all the unique customs from different countries and regions. But the Mexico presented is just sombreros and mustaches everywhere—Manolo’s second guitar’s bridge is in the shape of a mustache, and in the book in the museum at the beginning, there is a picture of the globe with a freaking mustache over Mexico! And in said book, the various articles on Mexico include Cinco de Mayo and La Chupacabras, and that’s about it. Ugh. I’m no expert on Mexican culture, but I’m certain there is more to it than Cinco de Mayo and mustaches. I know I’d be pissed if there was a movie set in Ecuador and all the creators could think to include were bananas and llamas. It was all the more disappointing given that there were in fact more authentic connections to Mexican culture featured in the film: the Day of the Dead celebrations were painstakingly rendered, from the La Catrina iconography to the marigolds and pan de muerto left as offerings to the departed. Why did the creators feel the need to also add in such tired stereotypes? Doing so just plays into under-informed viewers’ ideas that things like Cinco de Mayo and tortillas are defining parts of Mexico.
The Mexican nature of the film brings me to my biggest concern of the film: language. It was in English, obviously, though set in Mexico. That’s fine; many American animated films are set in places (or in locations inspired by places) where English is not the primary spoken language—we know the characters are not actually speaking English. The majority of voice actors in this film have accented English; also perfectly fine—for many it is not a first language. The kicker is that the three main characters Manolo, Joaquín, and María all had accents as children, but only Manolo retained his as an adult. This was because adult Manolo was played by Diego Luna, an actor from Mexico. María was portrayed by Zoe Saldana. This is a curious case; Saldana is Latina, of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage, but she grew up in the U.S.A., speaking both English and Spanish. She is fluent in both, and sounds like a native speaker in both. I am glad she did not affect a disingenuous “Hispanic” accent onto her natural English, but it just felt very strange within the context of the rest of the film.
Joaquín, on the other hand, was played by none other than Channing Tatum. Dafuq. Clearly he does not have a natural Hispanic accent to his English, and he just sounded like Channing Tatum. Surely there was a Latino actor who could have gotten this role (I love Gael García Bernal, for instance, and I think he could have done a great job as the cocky Joaquín). While Muerte was voiced by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, Xibalba was voiced by Ron Perlman. Voice acting is one of those sneaky things that you can easily get away with “cheating” by using people of the wrong race or ethnicity, but when roles for Latin@ actors are as scarce as they are, why give main roles in your Mexican extravaganza film to white, non-Hispanic actors?
In short, I can’t in good faith recommend this movie. The good messages were simply buried under too much problematic material. I couldn’t stand most of the character animation except for the three main characters, and even that was iffy. For a children’s animated adventure movie, we got precious little original music; instead we were mostly treated to mariachi-ed versions of songs like Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait”. While there are smatterings of authentic Mexican culture amongst overused and potentially offensive stereotypes, I feel both those seeking to see their own heritage portrayed and those seeking to learn more about an unfamiliar culture will be let down. I say let’s close The Book of Life and put it back on the shelf.