We sat down in the theater to see The Book of Life movie, and as the lights dimmed, my nine-year-old daughter whispered, I have literally been waiting to see this since the day we saw the preview! And indeed she had. After that many months of anticipation, I didn’t know if it could live up to her expectations, but indeed, The Book of Life movie is entrancing, charming, whimsical and wonderful.
The gist is that in a small Mexican town long ago, Manolo and Joachim, friends and rivals since childhood, fight for the love of the gorgeous Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana. (She with the eyes as big as most people’s heads, Frozen style.)
On the Day of the Dead, while the boys are paying homage to their departed mothers–because, as my kids point out, every darn animated film starts with a dead mother–two gods intervene in their lives. There’s La Muerte, the beautiful ruler of the Land of the Remembered, who bets on the sweet, thoughtful, music-loving bullfighter-to-be Manolo (Diego Luna); while the Ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, Xibalba, banks on Joachim (hilariously voiced by Channing Tatum) the self-centered, muscle-bound, battle-ready son of the town’s local hero.
While overall the movie centers around a battle of good vs evil, the characters and themes are so much more nuanced and complex than what we’re used to seeing portrayed in typical American fare with Judeo-Christian narratives. (Not to get too academic on you here.) In Mexican lore, evil really isn’t evil–Xibalba is no Satan. And there are very different views portrayed here about death, the mythology of the afterlife, and the importance of ancestry and family name.
All of this makes the entire movie not just incredibly fresh and fun, but an amazing jumping off point for further discussions with your kids about other cultures’ views on life and family. And that’s something I hadn’t expected when I sat down to see a fun animated film.
The characters are outlandishly energetic and over the top, and I do admit I was concerned about Mexican stereotyping–there is a huge fascination with mustaches! But overall, the movie comes across to me as a lovely homage to the country’s folklore and traditions, with some inside jokes I imagine families of Mexican heritage will really appreciate.
To be sure, the story itself isn’t full of too many surprises–my own kids picked up on devices from Romeo and Juliet, Greek mythology, and The Princess Bride. But the whole film is so enjoyable, it hardly matters.
There is even plenty of comic relief, although not all of it is for the kids. I laughed out loud at Manolo singing Radiohead’s Creep after a defeat in the bullring. And Ice Cube is wonderful voicing the mythological Candle Maker who keeps the world in balance.
Just know that if you plan on bringing your four-year-old, The Book of Life movie is incredibly irreverent and somewhat edgy, with lots of teasing, name-calling, swordfighting, and silly bonking and poking and punching in the nose, if you’re sensitive to cartoon violence. There’s also plenty of frank talk about “finishing the bulls” after a bullfight.
And of course, there are skeletons. Lots and lots of skeletons. It is the Day of the Dead, after all.
If you want to see a spectacularly animated film with the family, The Book of Life is a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours this weekend, just in time for the real Day of the Dead coming up next week. Plus, it’s so nice to expose kids to animated sensibilities other than those from Pixar and Dreamworks–and to a film that doesn’t at all feel ready-made for merchandising with fast food kids’ meals and plush talking toys.
Here’s hoping that Reel FX keeps it up. I’d love to see what they do next.