In all of the Oscar hubbub, there’s one category that often gets just a passing glance: Best Animated film. I followed that category. I cared about that category. And most importantly, the film that I’d argue was the best animated film of this year didn’t even get a nomination. That film is The Book of Life.
The film is a Guillermo Del Toro-produced movie, but if you’re expecting something similar to Pan’s Labyrinth, stop it. Right now, just stop it. The film does, however, have influences of Hispanic culture, which is part of what makes it so interesting. The crux of the film surrounds The Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated in Central and South America, wherein people honor the dead in their family by decorating their graves with flowers and food. Also central to the plot in this film is a religious aspect to some celebrations of the festival, wherein a god, Xibalba, rules the Land of the Forgotten and the goddess La Muerte rules the Land of the Remembered.
What’s the difference, you ask? Well, they’re both lands of the dead, so to speak, but when your family doesn’t honor you or remember you go from the Land of the Remembered, a happy, glorious afterlife with the other deceased members of your family, to the Land of the Forgotten, a desolate wasteland of souls. Xibalba, routinely depressed by the horrid place he has to rule, places a bet with La Muerte. Each of them chooses a boy who is seeking after the heart of a girl. The one that marries her wins the bet, and rules all. But like most gods in mythological stories, Xibalba isn’t too keen on the idea of playing fair . . .
From there the story focuses on Manolo, the boy who La Muerte, clearly established as the good guy in this case, chooses. A talented young man from a family of bullfighters, Manolo wants to be a musician, but his father has no patience for them. He’s to be a bullfighter. Meanwhile, Manolo’s friend and rival Joaquin has become something of a war hero. Maria, the girl, comes back to town and the two men vie for her hand, neither knowing that they’re basically pawns in a chess game of the gods.
Even in my love for the film, I must admit one of its flaws: like many animated films, it employs its fair share of cliche animated film tropes, including, but not limited to, the boy pursuing a career his father won’t take seriously, wooing a young girl and a rival’s archaic view of women. There’s no denying that. But it’s the substance beyond that the film does have that makes up for it. After all, the film isn’t really about Manolo’s career choice; that’s more a conduit for cool music than it is anything. It’s a love story, but one that is more visually stunning than most animated films can ever achieve.
Guillermo Del Toro is like Tim Burton in that he has a distinct visual style, at least in his films that are influenced by Latin American culture. You may not necessarily glean that this is the guy that did Pacific Rim, but the common influences between The Book of Life and Pan’s Labyrinth are evident, even if the tones of the two films are completely different. From the wooden figures to the stylization of dead characters to the South American context to the wonderfully animated sequences of the Land of the Remembered, the film in and of itself is a visual masterpiece. It’s a joy to watch, and the staunchly above average comical relief from the kids hearing the story, the musicians, and the Candle Maker are just the icing on the cake.
It does come with an asterisk, however. One of the aspects of the film that would need to be discussed within families watching this film is its portrayal of divinity, as well as the afterlife. I don’t think its necessarily the case that all mythological elements of fiction are necessarily anti-Christian, because kids understand that something is fiction. They do, however, connect the dots in what is represented. So while a film like The Book of Life probably won’t cause them to believe in La Muerte instead of Jehovah, it may very well make them wonder if Jehovah likes to gamble and switches sides in a rather fickle manner, like Xibalba. That could be concerning.
This film’s version of the afterlife does contrast rather sharply with the afterlife that God promises us. It doesn’t matter if people on Earth remember us, because God will. That’s why we’re told to not fear man (Matthew 10:28). We also don’t have to worry about some bet throwing us out of the hand of God (Romans 8:39).
But those things can be discussed rather easily. What I like about this film is that offers something that most animated films, especially those coming from Disney and Pixar, do not: a look at stories in another culture. That context, with some of the most beautiful animation in the past decade, easily makes the film worth seeing.