Join us on a journey to the great beyond and back again with 2014’s underseen animated gem
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
Stouthearted and sensitive, Manolo (Diego Luna) has a few simple goals: to honor his Sanchez family, play beautiful music on his guitarra, and to win the heart of Maria (Zoe Saldana), the girl he has loved from childhood, who is one of his two best friends. The other is the brash and headstrong Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who competes with him in all things — and most fiercely for the love of Maria.
So intriguing is this love triangle that the gods themselves take an interest. The benevolent La Muerte and cynical Xibalba place a wager on the outcome, but Xibalba stacks the deck in his favor with consequences that will send Manolo to the afterlife — and back, if he can make it. The wildly colorful and exuberant vision of a journey through the great beyond gives the film its most important stylistic motif, and is also one of the main reasons it later drew comparisons to Coco which followed three years after.
Writer-director Jorge Gutierrez’s highly stylized and death-defying romantic adventure The Book of Life sported a unique aesthetic and seemed poised to become a huge hit, but failed to connect with the masses in the way it should have.
Appearing on Disney+ recently has proved a boon to the film’s visibility, leading to a wave of rediscovery for the little movie that could. Being a huge fan of the film, which has long been a favorite with my own family, I wanted to use this opportunity to share it with you.
Gutierrez recently guested on the Animation Industry Podcast, discussing his background and the fraught history of The Book of Life, a passion project that he fought to make on his own terms — and finally got the chance with none other than Guillermo del Toro helping to realize his little Mexican animated film as a producer and champion.
Next week’s pick:
We’re eagerly gearing up for Godzilla vs Kong, a rematch of the famous 1962 monster battle, reimagined for a new age. In preparation, we’re watching the Godzilla-and-friends slugfest Destroy All Monsters from 1968! Continuing the theme, we’ll follow the next week by the original 1933 King Kong.
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!
Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd)
I will always, but always be in the corner of a film that decides it’s only got one shot and will therefore do ALL the things, especially if it actually pulls it off. The Book of Life is one such film, and Jorge Gutiérrez creates a madcap tapestry of spinning plates, rapid fire gags, and shockingly effective jukebox musical numbers around a solid spine of romance, adventure, and self worth.
It’s easy to imagine a version of this story that ditches the museum frame story or the wager between Xibalba and La Muerta over which of her dashing suitors young Maria would marry, or the quest through the Land of the Remembered, but as much as such focus might allow the film to really hone in on and nail a couple gut punch emotional beats, I’m not sure I’d want the trade. Not to invoke the obvious Pixar connection, but as much as I love Coco for being a trademark narrative/thematic Swiss watch, I adore how The Book of Life’s madcap messiness and sprawling scope reflect…well, life. The film’s breathless desire to show you Another Cool Thing means that you never quite know what’s around the corner until you run smack into “We killed our romantic lead, and Act 2 ain’t even over yet.”
But still in a breezily-paced, all-ages animated film, ya dig? Look, the songs work for me (especially the Big One, that Gustavo Santolalla chap knows his way around the notes), I’m a big fan of how the film refuses to turn anyone except the comically oversized bandit leader into an irredeemable jerk, and I’ll always be a sucker for a film that blends disparate animation styles together and makes it work. (@blcagnew)
With a highly stylized design that borrows from puppetry and the cubist leanings of Picasso, The Book of Life is a rare animated film that can truly claim that there was simply nothing like it before. It’s a musical romantic comedy that mixes traditional Mexican mythology and lore with a hearty story, big laughs, and a rollicking soundtrack. Every one of those elements works, and it’s all held together by the unusual glue of a sensitive and humble protagonist. (Listen to Jorge’s podcast episode linked above to hear about the difference between “macho men” and “super macho men”. It’s a wonderful lesson from his childhood that’s demonstrated perfectly in this film).
The most interesting aspect of the tale to me is the outright refusal of Manolo, whose family comes from a storied bullfighting tradition dating back many generations, to kill a bull. The Book of Life is affectionately and unapologetically made by proud sons of Mexico, but that never means that anything gets a pass. They grapple with the aspects of that culture that they disagree with, choosing what’s right over what’s traditional. It’s a flourish of honesty that lends maturity and weight to the film and its ideas. (@vforvashaw)
Look, the death god has big red skulls for pupils and that, that I just think is really, really neat.
Austin and Agnew have gone on long enough about all the ways in which this film is wonderful, and it is. I’m not quite as enamored with it as they are, especially since there is so much time in the Land of the Living and then it feels like everything in the Land of the Dead is playing out at double-speed. But the wood-puppet look to each character and every world is sublime, and the raucous energy keeps things humming even if there are moments where the narrative gets clunky.
The Book of Life might not be entirely to my personal tastes, but it’s a gorgeous and idiosyncratic little gem, and I’d love to see more work from this team. (@theTrueBrendanF)
Next week’s pick: