Last week I took my kids to a summer showing of last year’s The Book of Life, an animated movie all about el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). I knew nothing about the film going in, other than it was animated and I’d heard good things about it. My kids really liked it and I did, too – mostly.
Written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Torro, the film is by, for, and about people of Mexican and Hispanic descent. In a whitewashed industry, this is refreshing and a step in the right direction for diversity. The animation is visually stunning. I am already a fan of the animation and the art of el Dia de los Muertos. This film highlights the best of these worlds. Seriously, the art is a triumph.
The script and music, however, fall flat. The story reminds me of a basic Italianate opera plot: love triangle, male competition, deception, intrigue, death, victory. While the screenplay tries to make Maria, the main female character, feminist, the entire script feels like her feminism is an add-on, not an actual genuine expression of the character; it feels forced. As likeable as the characters are, I had to roll my eyes at the love triangle part. Why does she have to pick on? In this day and age, can’t she have BOTH? (I’m guessing mainstream America isn’t yet ready for a polyamorous relationship, since getting an Hispanic cast and theme greenlit was hard enough from what I read.)
One of the characters, Manolo, longs to be a musician. I was bored with the mainstream music choices. Why do we need “accessible” pop music? Apparently, it was a big deal that Radio Head gave the film permission to use one of its songs. Meh. The single original song in the film was the most moving. And I really didn’t like that the mariachi musicians were silly, bumbling idiots. Maybe this is a cultural joke for Mexicans as well? I really don’t know. But for white folk, this trope is too common. I was bored by it and uncomfortable.
So besides the animation, what was good about this film? The whole film is primarily about death, ancestor veneration, and Santa Muerte. My kids are already familiar with some of this imagery and many of the themes. They jumped right in!
While the film takes liberties with Mexican deities – La Muerta is dressed up in Day of the Dead decoration, but is a thinly veiled Bony Lady for those with eyes to see; Xibalba, whose name is the Mayan Underworld, traditionally guarded by ten deities, is a wonderful addition – we get to see a world filled with more than one god! There is also the Candle Maker, who looks like a more traditional Christian depiction of God [sic], voiced by Ice Cube, but he is not above La Muerta or Xibalba, he is equal to.
I also loved the depiction of the underworld and lands (plural!) of the dead. One realm is beautiful and full of “life” – the realm of the Remembered. This is watched over by La Muerta. The realm of the Forgotten is ruled by Xibalba. The hero of our movie goes into the underworld and brings back his departed family. The lesson of the film is that we are never alone and that our beloved dead will fight on our side.
In spite of the weak script I can’t help but enthusiastically recommend this film to Pagans and Polytheists! How often, especially for kids, is there a theme that remotely expresses the beauty of ancestor veneration? Almost never.
Don’t see this movie for a fresh, insightful script. See it for the animation and see it because as a Pagan and Polytheist this movie made my heart fill with glee.