This animated trip through the Mexican Day of the Dead, produced in part by Guillermo del Toro but directed by Jorge Gutierrez, is a movie completely at odds with itself from start to finish. The art style, in which the characters look like highly articulated wooden dolls and are surrounded by endless bursts of color, is incredible and is like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie. The story is an unfocused mess, pouring father-child issues, animal rights, women’s rights, romance, personal maturity, and self-determination into one film whose central good-versus-evil plot is as multilayered as the setting itself. The story really is a gorgeous and well-meaning celebration of a culture viewers might be unfamiliar with, but ultimately its appeal will depend on how much you expect a movie’s logic to hold up under scrutiny.
The concept, at least, is very interesting.
The film’s concept of the afterlife consists primarily of two realms, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. Essentially, depending on whether lots of people remember who you were, you end up spending your eternity in either a giant festival or a dusty void that’s physically and emotionally lifeless. (There is a beautiful scene that is much easier to relate to, where children are told that their loved ones “live on” in their hearts, which makes a lot more sense than wondering where people who die well-known but abhorred or noble but unnoticed end up.)
Most of the story takes place within the physical world, so to speak, so if you’re expecting a journey through the afterlife from start to finish, you may be disappointed. Furthermore, this realm-juggling plot is set inside of a frame story that is narrated inside a museum and has no purpose whatsoever. But let us start with the basics. Manolo, a reluctant bullfighter with a family legacy forced upon him, and his friend Joaquin are romantic rivals for the hand of Maria, a young woman with arguably the strongest and most mature heart in the film. Manolo and Joaquin have both known loss, each of different parents. There are also two deities, La Muerte (“death?”) and Xibalba (possibly named for the Mayan underworld), estranged lovers who wage bets over territory and involve themselves in mortal affairs, most notably over which boy Maria will marry. One of the boys receives a medal that protects him from death and injury, eventually bringing into question the sincerity of his courage.
And so it goes. The rules of the cosmos are established, as are the principle characters; everything seems fine, and the movie sets itself up to deal either with grief and remembrance or with loss and reunion, whether in this life or the next, when Maria’s father sends her away to study for her reckless behavior despite her best intentions. Then the story goes completely off the rails.
This is somehow relevant to the Day of the Dead.
The next scenes of the movie deal largely with Manolo bullfighting, and the only real purpose for his strained relationship with his father is to serve as a moral contrast to that with Maria, on the occasion of the town darling returning from her studies. Manolo’s father wants him to kill a bull, in line with family tradition; Maria wants it spared. The movie uses this as part of a later message of peace, particularly toward animals, but one wonders what choice Manolo would have made if the roles were reversed and Maria were calling for the bull’s end.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the production values up to this point have been fantastic, and they continue as such throughout the movie. The voice acting is flawless, even as some characters can wear on a nerve due to their personalities; the art design just gets better and better, even to the part of accentuating its wooden characters’ chin hairs and complex joints; and the movie’s use of pop songs actually fits really well and makes the atmosphere that much more romantic. The songs have their instrumentation changed to suit the culture, and one of them (Radiohead’s “Creep”) has had its language removed. Parents might note that there is one use of ‘sexy,’ but it’s played for laughs.
The plot begins to fix its pacing to a degree when both boys confess their desire for Maria. I won’t necessarily say “love,” as many characters’ actions during this scene cast doubt on their concern for Maria’s well-being, which offends the confident and free-spirited girl. Furthermore, [necessary spoiler] the subject of death lodges itself firmly into the plot as Manolo is killed by a snake, which drastically affects how the film plays out.
Meeting its potential partway
After half of the movie’s running time is behind it, the afterlife finally shows up. Manolo, who was well known in life, has plenty of people to vouch for his entry into the Land of the Remembered. It’s a profoundly lovely location to view; it seems much more enjoyable than the land of the living, and Manolo even gets to be reunited with his mother Carmen and numerous other ancestors.
Not long after this, due to another character’s wrongdoing, Manolo yearns to revisit the living world as several plot threads become more complicated, vying for attention. Joaquin seems all but forgotten during these scenes, where Manolo is trying to complete several “dangerous” tasks, which often fall flat in terms of drama since he’s already dead. The same goes for his prolonged refusal to kill a bull who is also dead, even as he tries to make amends for his family’s slaughter of their kind. The Land of the Forgotten gets so little screen time that it feels every bit the waste it’s depicted as being.
If you’re starting to get misgivings over what may sound like a blatant celebration of death, this comes up: back in the human world, Manolo is being mourned even after the giant party he enjoyed yet had to leave, but the movie doesn’t really make clear whether we should grieve over our loved ones or rejoice, despite our emotions, that they are in a better place. It also doesn’t really address the justice or lack thereof behind a realm dedicated to forgotten souls.
At this point, all that’s left to resolve is the bandit plot and the question of which boy the underused Maria will marry, but at least the movie remembers to give Joaquin attention. The plot tries for a faux death of one character toward its end, but this too falls flat, as the giving of the solution is established far too close to its crucible to be effective. Contrast this with The Fellowship of the Ring, which gives the audience plenty of time to forget about a similar solution being in place before the movie makes its appeal for emotion. If the example in The Book of Life had been an actual death, it would have been a powerful testament to courage and a touching conclusion to a story that was already willing to approach and usually depict this difficult subject head-on.
Conclusion: Style over substance
It’s hard to really make any one definitive statement about The Book of Life’s story. It never finds a thematic focus, which leads to the plot’s own difficulty prioritizing its numerous characters and threads. Should we be concerned about deities using humans and their afterlives in a bet? The treatment of animals? The treatment of Maria, whose prospective groom doesn’t want to force her to marry him even as so many other people seem to? The meaning and history behind the Day of the Dead (which at one point is used as an excuse for the movie to blatantly make up its rules as it goes)? The movie, which is largely a fairy tale, tries juggling all of these things and doesn’t really succeed, lending an impression of being a big missed opportunity.
That being stated, I can’t say enough about the sheer wonder of the artistic pageantry on display, complemented exceedingly well by the music, both original and licensed. Whether the bullfights make sense for the story or not, they make for plenty of action and are very well designed, and the movie has delightfully few content issues. The voices, again, are excellent, especially during several of the songs, with “I Love You Too Much” being a major highlight. There’s very little innuendo, no major language, and tons of gags, making for a film young children should love. My recommendation for older viewers comes as a question of whether they view movies simply to have fun or if they expect a setting and a plot structure to be sensibly constructed. For the former, especially for viewers who love cultural experiences, this film should be a delight. For the latter, the art book and the soundtrack may be a better choice. If you want a more focused father-child story, try How to Train Your Dragon 2, and if you want a better and simpler romance, give Tangled a shot. If you want something that at least tries to be unique, in setting if not in story, then you may find this to still be worth a look. At least you probably won’t get bored!