Film of the week: The Book of Life

Co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, an exuberant, affirmative riff on Mexico’s Day of the Dead carnival, Russian dolls-style.


from our forthcoming December 2014 issue

The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)


What if death were just another phase in our lives, and our deceased loved ones were closer than we thought? Drawing on Mexican folklore and other Latin American traditions, Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s version of death in his beautiful, witty 3D-animated debut The Book of Life is bursting with vibrant colours and magic – a constantly expanding, neverending party.

Thus, as per Mexican tradition, La Muerte is no pale, black-clad man brandishing a scythe but a dazzling, intelligent female who cares for everyone equally as she reigns over the Land of the Remembered. Her wicked (and wickedly charming) estranged husband Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten, and both these worlds come together once a year during the famous celebrations of Día de los Muertos, when Muerte is the queen of life for a day.

It is on this very day that a group of ‘difficult’ kids is taken on a museum tour by a beguiling, mysterious guide who introduces them to the Book of Life that gives the film its title. Everyone’s lives are documented in its pages.

One of its stories concerns a love triangle between three amigos: Manolo, a bullfighter by family tradition but a musician at heart; María, the courageous and smart daughter of San Ángel’s town mayor; and Joaquín, a valiant soldier-to-be with a good heart yet undeniably self-centred. They will all have to find their true selves before they can find each other.

With such a setting, it’s perhaps not surprising that the first name in the opening credits is that of co-producer Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker whose involvement in this project has been characterised by Gutiérrez as that of “a very loving but strict professor”.

The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)

It’s an inventive, funny and genuinely touching tale about growing up, finding happiness in the happiness of others and, above all, the importance of family and carving your place as an individual within it. The theme of taking charge of your own destiny is given a distinct feminist slant. Gutiérrez co-designed the characters with his wife Sandra, and it shows; women here match (or surpass) men in all spheres, be it wit, courage or intellect. And although it’s essentially a love triangle with a woman at its centre, María is far from being the princessy type.

Characters are not just well-rounded on the page but almost tangibly three-dimensional; María and her suitors were made manually out of wood, the baddies out of metal, and the evident craft and attention to detail pays off, giving the different worlds defining textures. The same can be said of the soundtrack, composed by Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), who more than once nods to adult viewers with unexpected ‘Latinised’ versions of songs such as Radiohead’s Creep.

Del Toro’s dictum has always been that stories are what moves the world. Gutiérrez takes this idea and gives it a Russian-doll spin – a story within a tale, within another story kept in a book where all the stories are written, be they true or made-up. The thrilling narrative whisks the characters (and viewers of all ages) from the sundrenched land of the living to the centre of darkness through the magical world of Death and back. Quite a ride.

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