Last night, I had the rare treat of sitting through a private screening of The Book of Life in my local theater. Okay. I just happened to be the only person in the theater for that particular showing. That was pretty awesome. Want to know what was even more awesome? The movie itself.
The story begins with a bus full of rowdy students pulling up to a museum. They’re your stereotypical group of kids who are unimpressed with the idea of having to go on another museum field trip. Fortunately for them, they end up tour guide Mary Kate (Christina Applegate) who takes them into a special part of the museum. This part of the museum is dedicated to the art and history of Mexico. It also houses the Book of Life wherein all of life’s stories, fact and fiction, are written.
After a quick run-down of the Day of the Dead and a description of the realms of the dead, the Land of the Remembered ruled by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and the Land of the Forgotten ruled by Xibalba (Ron Perlman), Mary Kate launches into a tale of how those two figures decided to enter into a wager. On one Day of the Dead, La Muerte and Xibalba decide to wager the rulership of the Land of the Remembered. They spy three children, two boys and the girl they adore, and choose their champions.
La Muerte favors the would-be singer/song-writer Manolo (Emil-Bastien Bouffard) and Xibalba favors heroic would-be soldier Joaquin (Elias Garza). Whoever wins the hand of feisty Maria (Genesis Ochoa) will determine whether or not there’s regime change in the lands of the dead. Maria is sent off to school in Europe and the boys grow to men, each following a different path.
Years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) is still trying to pursue his love of music while his father, Carlos (Hector Elizondo), and his grandmother (Grey deLisle) are pushing him into the family business of bullfighting. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) was taken under the wing off Maria’s father and is the hero of the town in part due to a gift he received from Xibalba. Maria (Zoë Saldana) has returned from her studies abroad. The competition over her hand begins in earnest.
Now, you’d think this would soon develop into a stereotypical love triangle, but it doesn’t exactly go that route. Maria is annoyed by her friends fighting over her and refuses to be impressed by just anything. She’s a woman who knows her own mind, is well-educated, and knows how to fence. While her suitors are understandably competitive with each other, they still remain friends.
Sure, the romance is a big part of the movie and the driving force behind much of the plot, but that’s not the only love this movie is interested in showing. There’s an underlying thread of the love of your family woven in with learning to love and accept yourself. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a pleasant and wonderful surprise.
If I had to pick one word to describe The Book of Life, it would be “joyous.” The movie is a brilliant celebration of life, death, and everything in between. By the end of the movie, I was grinning from ear to ear. It was hard to keep from smiling.
The voice talent they chose was fantastic, even the sudden appearance of Ice Cube as Candle Maker. I wasn’t sure about that when I saw the trailers, but he was a treat. The visuals were stunning. I saw the movie in 3D and it would probably look just as lovely in 2D, just without the added dimension that really highlights the scope of the landscapes, particularly in the gorgeous Land of the Remembered.
I loved the musical numbers. I loved the way this movie made me feel. I love how just listening to the soundtrack and writing this review is making me smile all over again. I hope to catch this film again in theaters and hope you all go and see it. It’s such a beautiful experience.
Before I get into a slightly spoilery territory, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about death. It’s been a bit of a rough year for many people I know, one that was marked by the deaths of those near and dear. If you recall, I wrote about my grandmother’s passing earlier this year. As I sat through the movie, I had to admit that I loved the way it looked at death. Saying good-bye wasn’t a sorrowful experience. Those who’d gone before weren’t gone forever.
While it’s not the first movie to have had a more colorful look at death, it’s my favorite. In Tim Burton‘s recent-ish film, The Corpse Bride, the land of the dead was also seen as a bright and vivid land in contrast to the gray and staid world above. Yet there was that underlying creepy factor to that location, which is understandable considering that creepy is what Tim Burton does. Stylistically, I much prefer the Land of the Remembered and its “all you can eat churros.” It’s a much happier place.
Okay. Now we’re going into slightly spoilery territory. You have been warned.
I loved Maria. She was a fiery character with her own plot arc and motivations. While she is briefly damseled (it’s a trope that just won’t die), she then gets to be a full participant in the final battle against a rampaging bandit army. It’s her words that unite the town and give them the motivation to fight back against the invaders. I want more Marias in the world.
While I talk about Maria, let’s talk about Manolo and the way his character addresses the occasionally toxic nature of masculinity and machismo. His father and the manly Sanchez departed are fierce bullfighters who don’t approve of Manolo’s love of music. It’s his dearly departed mother, Carmen, who points out that she didn’t want him to be a bullfighter like his family before him. It’s ultimately Manolo’s music that turns things around for our heroes. It’s love and selflessness that wins the day.
Combining the subversion of masculine tropes with the badassery of the female characters makes The Book of Life a wonderfully feminist treat. That’s why this movie is going to be a must-buy when it comes out on Blu-ray. Also, I’m totally going to see it again when I get the chance.