It comes as no surprise that The Book of Life, directed and written by Jorge R. Gutiérrez, a long time fan of acclaimed Latino director Guillermo del Toro, received such excellent reviews in the film world—scoring an eighty-one percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a seven-point-three out of ten on IMDB. This animated film tells the story of a love triangle that situates itself on the well-known day in Mexico called Día De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). What this movie does best is appeal to audiences of any demographic into a space where learning about the Mexican culture becomes easy through the children characters that are used to narrate the story.
In an interview, del Torro (producer) recognizes Gutiérrez’s passion and comment to the Mexican culture. This is clear through the artistic style, music, and story that The Book of Life gives to its audience—the most praise-worthy aspects of this movie. Taking contemporary popular and recognizable songs like, “Creep” by Radiohead, and transforming them into mariachi style sounds, allows the audience to meet the Mexican culture in the middle of what is both familiar and unfamiliar.
Another way the movie does this is by using a story-within-a-story narrative device. It begins with five “detention” children arriving via school bus to spend the day at a museum. These children are in for a sweet surprise when their apprehension about visiting a “boring museum” becomes a unique and special experience just for them. Led by La Muerte in disguise through a secret door and into the museum’s secret room of Mexican artifacts, these rude and misbehaved children become captivated by the story that La Muerte reads to them from the Book of Life—a book that has every story that ever was and will be. This frame story works exceptionally well in drawing in the audience because it provides an easy, accessible way to identify with the children if the viewer is also unknowing of Mexican culture and folklore. However, the fact that these children are from a detention program seems counterintuitive to the often-stereotyped identities of how Latinos are represented in Hollywood.
As soon as one of the children discovers the Book of Life, it shows the common stories that the audience should already know, such as Cinco de Mayo and the legend of the Chupacabra. But as with the complexity of any culture’s stories, the movie at least privileges the audience who don’t know these things by having only one of the kids able to recognize one of those two stories. La Muerte goes on to tell the love story to the children that begins on Día De Los Muertos. We are introduced to the main characters of that story, Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin as small children. At the same time, the audience is presented with a third story—the story of Xibalba and La Muerte’s wager. Within this combination of stories, the audience is taken to the town of San Rafael in Mexico (where the love story takes place), the Land of the Forgotten and Remembered (the places that are like heaven and hell to the Día de Los Muertos), and the secret room in the museum which appears to be in the United States (where the audience is also allowed into). To stay away from any spoiler alerts I will stop with the summary now, but I will say that the way this love triangle story ends, opens a new dynamic to the frame story that encourages the detention children to take their lives into their own hands—which seems to be the point of the movie. As del Torro states, “The book of life is about what it takes to create your own destiny” and it really is (IMDB.com).
However, the criticism that I am left with about this movie comes from the dichotomy of stereotypes that The Book of Life seems to be wanting to break free from—an attempt to put Mexico, its people, and its culture, in a position that is more agreeable than the often produced images of the Mexican characters in Hollywood—yet still fall short. For instance, one mariachi band mate says slurring his words to one another: “We’ve already been to four bars; twice!” and also when one of the detention kids says: “What's with Mexicans and death!?” and also when Manolo’s grandmother explains how she got to the Land of the Remembered: “Eh. Cholesterol.” Perhaps Gutiérrez incorporates these stereotypes as comic relief, but it also affirms and perpetuates that these stereotypes do exist among Mexicans and reflects the dominant culture's assessment of Mexican identity. And while a few stereotypes might not seem too bad, another conflict I had with the movie was the use of accents and how they differed within certain characters. Manolo’s character speaks with a Mexican accent, as do many of the characters in the love story frame, but Joaquin's character, voiced by Channing Tatum, speaks with a flawless American accent. Joaquin grows to be the most respected hero of the town subtly highlighting Hollywood's preference for inauthentic ventriloquism over authentic Mexican-American voices. For the duration of the movie, it presents the American voice in a better position than the voice of Manolo's character who speaks English with a traditional Mexican accent. Yet, he is not the only Anglo voice actor in this film. Ron Perlman, an actor of European descent, does the voice for Xibalba and controversially does this voice with a made up Mexican-American accent—a juxtaposition of authenticity in representing the Mexican culture.
While this movie possesses a few problems, I find its pros outweigh the cons by a long shot. Like the sweet voice of La Muerte that calmly asserts her authority over the children, the movie allows me to believe that this story is good for all audiences but perhaps it is meant to encourage Mexican children to become more than the detention kids and in fact write their own stories.