Carrie and I both saw The Book of Life his past weekend, and we both had a LOT to say about it, so behold: joint review. Joint Long Ass Review, in fact. Short version: the story is not as strong as the visuals, but this is a wonderfully warm and visually stunning movie and we both recommend it.
Sarah: I started this review while basking in the afterglow of having seen it – it’s so beautiful, and so warming – and then went back and added the parts that bothered me after discussing it at length over dinner. So first, I’m going to talk about the things I liked, and then I’m going to outline the things that weren’t as strong for me. The visuals are amazing; the romance, not so much.
This film could not have come at a better time for me and my family. We have really old cats. Spawn is 12, and Grace is 17. We had to put Oliver, who was also 17, to sleep this week. He's been ill for a long time, and it was time, but it wasn't easy for us.
My older son, Freebird, is almost nine, and Grace lives on his bed, yelling at him when he’s not in bed on time and purring at him when he’s trying to go to sleep. He's old enough to understand a lot of what's happening to our cats, and we've been talking a lot about why part of pet ownership includes doing the awful hard things. As a result, Freebird’s been worried about what happens after we die.
American death culture is pretty scary, especially around Halloween. There are pop up cemeteries in people’s front yards, zombies and ghosts hanging from trees, and the general aesthetic of death around Halloween attempts to scare the crap out of passers by, and possibly also trick-or-treaters.
When we were driving to the theatre to see The Book of Life, I asked both dudes if they understood what the movie was about. They had no idea except that the trailer featured churros, which they had deduced were something really good. (They are so right about that. Churros are amazing.) I explained what churros are, and also that the movie was about, in part, El Dia de Los Muertos, when the boundary between the living and the dead is more fluid, and the living honor their ancestors by leaving gifts and lighting candles for them.
I was hoping that seeing the movie would give Freebird a different way to think about death, because he’s been troubled by the lack of concrete knowledge about what happens after someone dies. But the way in which the film presented the world of the living, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten was so far beyond what I expected. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I saw this film and that I saw it with him, because it is a beautiful, emotional, gentle and uplifting portrayal of how love and remembering the people you love keeps them alive in different ways.
I loved that the living were portrayed as wooden dolls, because a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) was telling the story of The Book of Life to a handful of kids on a special visit to her museum. (The kids in the story are also representative of many different cultures, I learned yesterday.) The dolls come to life, but their mannerisms and the texture of their faces are still wooden, which added to the fantastical aspect of the story.
When characters pass into the Land of the Remembered, the skeletal appearances of the ancestors, and their faces, which are skulls with candles for eyes, weren’t scary for me, or for the dudes (I can’t speak for every child, but in the theatre I was in, there were several children who are younger than mine and they didn’t seem to be frightened either). Because the concept of the sugar skulls, the candles and the spirits of the ancestors had already been introduced, by the time Manolo enters the Land of the Remembered, it’s so beautiful, so warm and fantastical, that it’s not scary. Death is not something to be scared of in this film, because Manolo is welcomed by his ancestors, his grandparents, his great grandparents, and his mother, all of whom are happy to see him. Moreover, the Land itself is so incredibly gorgeous, when Manolo saw it for the first time, with balloons and bridges and candles, all against a backdrop that was completely saturated with color, my eyes teared. Freebird, who was next to me, whispered how beautiful he thought it was.
The major themes of the film are layered and equally accessible and gorgeously rendered, too. The idea that being loved transcends the boundaries of life, and that love is manifests the beauty in both the land of the living and the Land of the Remembered is both explained but more amply illustrated in the visuals. It is simply so beautiful to look at, with an almost palpable warmth that extends into the audience. We saw it in 3D, but I didn’t think the 3D was necessarily all that important. It was decent but nothing tried to fly up my nose or anything. 3D didn’t add to the experience in my opinion, but I haven’t seen it in 2D to identify any differences.
I do wish the Land of the Forgotten had been better addressed. Those whose descendants do not remember them, or whose descendants are no longer alive to remember them, live in the Land of the Forgotten, where they ultimately become dust and blow away. Those who live in the Land of the Remembered remain there so long as they are remembered, and so long as their family members remember them, and honor them on El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The threat to the town in the land of the living is dire in part because if the bandit and his crew kill everyone, there will be no one left to remember the ancestors in the Land of the Remembered. The spirits in the Land of the Remembered want to help stop the attack alongside their living descendants, because without them, they all go to the Land of the Forgotten.
SPOILER AHEAD: The two rulers of those two worlds, La Muerte, who rules the Remembered, and Xibalba, who rules the Forgotten, are the impetus of the tale.They themselves are an estranged couple because during their last wager, Xibalba cheated, and La Muerte has not forgiven him. A new wager creates the plot of The Book of Life, because they each pick a champion for the hand of Maria in marriage. La Murete chooses Manolo, and Xibalba picks Joaquin, both of whom are friends with, and secretly interested in, Maria.
Again, Xibalba cheats. But what bothered me was that in the end, they agree to rule over both worlds together, reconciling their relationship and, one would assume, the realms of the Forgotten and the Remembered. But the way in which the Forgotten become Remembered, or if they even do, isn’t shown. There’s no reconciliation of the haunting despair of those who are Forgotten, who blow away into dust because no one remembers them. Are they brought to the Land of the Remembered? Are they cared for? Does anything change for them?
The concept of remembering your family and honoring your ancestors is challenged by the degree to which Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria all live under the “big shadows,” as Joaquin calls them, of their family’s expectations. Joaquin is expected to become a military hero like his father, who defended the town against the loathsome bandit, who shows up as a figuratively and literally toothless menace.
Manolo’s father expects him to become a matador like all his own ancestors, despite Manolo’s inability and unwillingness to kill the bull. Maria is expected to become a perfect young woman, and is sent to a convent in Europe when her misbehavior as a child enrages her father. When she returns to the town, she is expected to behave modestly, and is encouraged to make an advantageous marriage to save the town by marrying Joaquin, whom she does not love besides as a friend.
Here’s what gets me: if she marries Joaquin, he will stay in the town and defend it against the bandit. Why wasn’t he encouraged to have the same loyalty to his own town, and sit his ass down and defend the town on his own? Why was marriage to Maria the only reason for him to stay? I have no idea.
I loved that Maria was, from the first scenes, determined to NOT be a prize to be won, and that she was capable of defending herself. I loved that ultimately she showed some of her own capabilities, and her strength was respected by the townspeople. I also loved that the idea of destiny isn’t necessarily following parental or familial expectations. Manolo’s stay in the Land of the Remembered is ultimately changed because the story of his life has not been written already. His destiny is not set, and he is writing his own tale. In the end, each of them writes their own stories – a message that should make the hearts of any creative person all melty and warm.
The beats were very familiar, used in both romance and adventure/quest narratives. Manolo is an exception to the family expectation because he can’t kill the dragon bull. He wants to pursue music but his father pressures him into becoming a matador anyway. When Manolo passes into the Land of the Remembered, he meets an ancestor who wanted to be an opera singer, a character voiced by Placido Domingo. (That made me ridiculously happy because when that character started to sing, I recognized the voice and it was driving me batty that I couldn’t place it.)
After some thought, a few aspects of the story bothered me, and they were all romance related.
First, the conflict in the story is based partly on a love triangle between Maria, Joaquin and Manolo. But Joaquin’s antagonism is so weakly developed, you’d think he was sequel bait for a future story wherein he’d find his romance. He’s their friend, and is Manolo’s best friend once Maria is sent away to school, because both Manolo and Joaquin labor under the expectations of their fathers. Trouble is, Manolo’s father is a presence in the movie, explaining what he expects his son to do. Joaquin’s father is dead, and in one of the early scenes that contrasts Manolo’s kindness and generosity with Joaquin’s lack thereof, the narrator explains that his father was a great military leader, and the same is expected of Joaquin. Except there isn’t really much more development than that. If Joaquin was working under the long shadow of his father’s accomplishments, we didn’t see much of that shadow. Plus, Manolo had an alternate passion he wanted to pursue – music. His father dismisses that interest as beneath him, but Manolo is often seen with his swords behind him on one shoulder, and his guitar strapped to his back as well. Joaquin doesn’t seem to have an alternate interest. There’s nothing specific that he wanted to do as an alternate to the expectations before him. As an antagonist and as a character, he was very weakly developed. By making Manolo more sympathetic, the story shortchanged Joaquin.
Maria gets shortchanged, too. She says in the beginning that she isn’t a prize to be won, with shades of Merida who shoots for her own hand in marriage, and later, after her return, she demonstrates cursory skill with swords and with hand to hand combat. But her acquisition of those skills is mentioned only in passing, and she doesn’t get to fully demonstrate that she’s not only able to take care of herself, but also very likely to be as lethal to their enemies as Joaquin.
Maria also doesn’t have enough autonomy to make her more than the prize that’s won at the end. Manolo’s goal through his journey through the Remembered and the Forgotten is to get back to Mariar. Because Maria’s hand is what Manolo hopes to win, and because his journey through the lands of the dead are focused on being with her, no matter what Maria does, her role is reduced to that of the prize Manolo earns by completing his quest.
The weaknesses of character development and of inadequate antagonism were less damaging to my overall impression of the film because the visuals were so incredibly good. There was so much to look at. There were the nods to Aztec culture and artifacts, and the rendering of the very small militia as if they were drawn by Picasso, with sculpted oblong noses that make right turns off their faces toward the sky and heads that looked like squeezed pieces of putty. The visuals are so rich, and I bet if I saw it two or three more times, I’d notice more things in the background.
Carrie: The Book of Life is a gorgeous, loving homage to the culture of Mexico. It’s visually stunning, it uses music creatively and effectively to provide both humor and pathos, it’s hilarious and it’s swooningly romantic.
I had the advantage of getting to read Sarah’s review before writing my own, and I echo every thing she said about the treatment of death in the film. If you’ve lost people without closure, which frankly most of us have, then bring some tissues for a good, happy cry. While the Land of the Remembered was warm and welcoming, I agree with Sarah’s concerns about the Land of the Forgotten. The Land of the Forgotten is raised as such a terrifying spectre that I would have liked a little more discussion about it. What does it mean to be forgotten and remembered? What does it look like after the events of the ending have transpired?
I loved that the movie is a fantasy that is not Western European based! It’s very accessible, and even though the plot is basic the setting and visuals make the movie feel fresh and exciting. Almost all of the characters are voiced by Hispanic actors. I’m not aware if Channing Tatum, who voices Joaquin, has any Hispanic heritage but I actually thought that was pretty subversive, because he plays a character who is obsessed with appearing macho, to his own detriment. It was delightful to see a Hollywood movie that isn’t whitewashed – let’s see more of this, Hollywood! By the way, I saw it in 2D and didn’t feel I was missing out.
Since Sarah talked so much about the themes of the afterlife and the visuals, I’ll focus on the romance from here on. The movie presents a basic love triangle. Two young boys, who are friends, both have crushes on the same girl. Improbably, but romantically, they wait for her while all three kids grow up. Manalo, who wants to play guitar, learns to be a bullfighter because that’s the Sanchez family tradition. Joaquin becomes a military hero, full of ego, because he’s supposed to live up to his father. Maria is sent away to school to become a lady, although given some comments she makes later in the film I have to wonder if her father thoroughly studied the curriculum before selecting the school.
While the kids are still kids, Xibalba, who rules The Land of the Forgotten, and La Muerte, who rules the Land of the Remembered, bet on which boy Maria will choose in adulthood. I would have liked to see Maria be the main character, but instead the main point of view character is Manolo. There are a lot of twists in the story, but the love triangle itself is your basic love triangle. There could have been more tension had it not been so obvious who Maria would choose from the get-go. Having said that, I liked the romance because it tied into the theme of writing your own story.
“Writing your own story” is major catnip for me. I wrote about it at length when I reviewed Saving Mr. Banks, where the line “write your own story” is spoken verbatim. There are a lot of destiny romances in which couples are fated to be and fated to assume certain roles, but I prefer the ones that are about two people (or more, if it’s a polyamorous romance) supporting each other in their attempt to build their own destinies. In Unveiled, by Courtney Milan, Ash tells Margaret to “paint her own canvas”. In Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie, Cal and Minnie each take a shot at convincing each other’s family that their children are worthy of family approval despite not having followed family tradition. I eat that stuff up.
This plays out beautifully in Book of Life. For one thing, it’s a major plot point. Beyond that, it forms the crux of the relationship between the Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin.
Beyond this point, everything I have to say is a sort of a spoiler, more or less.
Maria can’t stop being sent to school, but instead of moping about it she seized the opportunity to learn all kinds of things. She’s the one who encourages Manolo to choose his own destiny. Manolo ends up profiting enormously by learning the Sanchez bullfighting tradition, but he only prevails because he refuses to surrender his deepest values in service to the family. And even though Maria does not love Joaquin romantically, she still sees flashes of his vulnerable self (which is adorkable). Joaquin turns out to really be a hero, but his heroism stems not from the ruthlessness and selfishness that he was taught, but rather from his capacity for self-sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Manolo wins Maria not because of his skills or even his singing (which, WOW) but because he loves her for who she is. He thinks her fencing skills are awesome (he’s right). He loves her enthusiastic nature. Joaquin needs Maria to fit into the “good wife” mold, because he is trying to fit into a mold himself. But because Manolo fights fitting into the mold (with great struggle and ambivalence) he is quicker to let Maria be herself. Because Manolo and Maria see each other’s true selves and value the best in each other despite outside pressures, the romance has some substance. This is despite the fact that the romance is poetic, not realistic, in nature.
The romance is given weight by the fact that characters have to recognize their strengths, but it's lessened by the fact that the romance is a plot device. The speed of the romance didn't bother me, because this is a stylized, poetic story, not a realistic portrayal of relationships. But the bet drove me up the wall. Because the story is about a bet, and because the bet is one that the audience automatically wants Manolo to win, there's no way for the story to play out in a straightforward way without Maria being a prize that Manolo wins for being awesome (and yes, I agree that Joaquin is sequel bait). An alternate ending could have been one in which the humans refuse to be part of a bet (they don't know about the bet – but what if they found out?) A clever writer might have pulled out some sort of twist in which La Muerte and Xibalba learn not to play with humans lives, and Manolo and Maria marry, say, a year later when they have more autonomy. I really love Manolo and Maria together, otherwise I'd say let them all choose a completely different option. However, the movie succeeded in making me root for Manolo and Maria enough as a couple that I don't want to split them up, even if it would make for a more clever narrative.
The romantic parts of this film reminded me a lot of Moulin Rouge, particularly my personal version of Moulin Rouge which involves stopping the movie about ten minutes before the closing credits and saying, “What a happy ending!” Moulin Rouge had a similar over-the-top feeling, and a similar unabashed, extreme romanticism. The aesthetic was completely different, but both movies had a sumptuous, lavish look with great attention to detail, and both used modern music to make a traditional point. I won’t spoil which songs get used although I will say that Zoe Saldana can sing! Who knew!
Sarah: As a romance, I give this story a C+, but because of the beautiful visuals, the intricate and layered portrayal of Latin American culture, and the way in which life and death were described and defined, my grade for the movie is a B.
Carrie: I'd give the romance a B+ and the movie overall an A-. I'm a sucker for over the top romances where the fate of the world depends on those wacky kids getting together.
Sarah: So I’d average that to a B+, do you think?
And a more better trailer: