I have this ongoing debate about the legitimacy of “kids” movies. If you look at the top box office totals for any given year, inevitably there is an animated feature or two in the top ten. This can be confusing, because I will be the first one to tell you that the box office totals (as opposed to critics’ lists or Award totals) are the best way to find out the ‘best’ movies of the year – or at the very least, the most popular. This is true for everything except kids’ movies. The reason is that kids’ movies will always have huge box office totals – not necessarily because people loved them, but because people will take their kids, their neighbor’s kids, their friends kids, and random kids to the theater to see the movie. Suddenly you have 12 tickets purchased for the movie because people want to get the kids out of the house for two hours, not necessarily because the movie is good.
Now – I will admit that is a huge generalization – and there are quality kids movies out there. The LEGO movie earlier this year turned out huge numbers – at first because it was an animated kids’ movie, but then as word of mouth spread that the movie was entertaining for kids and adults, it continued to build steam.
The opposite is also true. Certain animated movies will have huge opening weekends, but then as word of mouth travels that the movie is not good, the sales quickly drop off for the following weekends. Occasionally, I will encounter a kids’ movie that is so good, I am blown away. The first How To Train Your Dragon did that, LEGO Movie did that earlier this year, and The Book Of Life has done it again.
I went to see it because it is produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who is one of my favorite directors. The Book Of Life is epically beautiful and elegant. The story begins with an elderly tour guide outside a museum, bemoaning that he has one more tour to give that day. A bus pulls up with about 6 difficult children on it, the “detention kids”, who begin by shooting spitballs at the old man. He is saved by a young woman tour guide, who volunteers to take the kids. She leads them through a secret door in the side of the museum, where she introduces them to the beauty of Mexico and its history. She shows them an illustration of three spirits or gods – La Muerte (who rules the Land of the Remembered), Xibalba (who rules the Land of the Forgotten), and the Candle Maker – who seems to function as the balance between. The tour guide shows the children a box of wooden figures, who each represent a character in the story she is about to tell them that took place long ago in Mexico.
The animation then shifts, and each of the characters are portrayed as these wooden dolls.
Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin are three friends who are playing together as children. Joaquin is struggling to live up to the expectations of his family, and his fallen father who was a great solider. Manolo is struggling to live up to the expectations of his family – which are all bullfighters. Maria is struggling to live up to the expectations of her father, which seem to be for her to be good and behave. On the Day Of The Dead (November 2nd, the day that families get together to remember those they have lost) La Muerte and Xibalba form a wager (Xibalba is tired of ruling the Land of the Forgotten, and wants to rule over the Land of the Remembered – which is much nicer). La Muerte backs Manolo, Xibalba backs Joaquin – whichever boy ends up being chosen by Maria to be her husband, that backer will get to rule the Land of the Remembered. After some shenanigans, Maria is sent off to Spain to be raised as a lady by nuns, Joaquin joins the militia, and Manolo learns to be a bullfighter, but really wants to be a singer – forcing him to try to choose between following his heart and following the expectations of his father.
Years pass, and Maria returns. Joaquin is now the greatest hero in the land (mainly because of an enchanted medal that Xibalba gave to him as a child that prevents him from getting harmed), Manolo is about to have his first major bullfight (which he keeps disappointing his father at, because he insists on not killing the bull). Manolo once again does not kill the bull – but puts on quite a display of skill. Joaquin attempts to woo Maria by being physically strong – and her father insists she consider his marriage proposal because he will then stay and protect the village from the coming bandit king, Chakal.
Maria is not thrilled that her father is making plans for her, and besides, Manolo comes to her window to sing to her. He asks her to meet him under a tree, where he also proposes to her.
However, as she is about to say yes – Xibalba has a snake sneak up to attack Manolo – Maria pushes him aside to save him, but gets bitten. Manolo carries her back to town, where of course her father and Joaquin blame him for the snakebite and he returns to the tree, completely disheartened at the loss of Maria. Xibalba takes advantage of this opportunity, and offers to have the snake bite Manolo twice – causing him to die and wake up in the Land of the Remembered.
Manolo is reunited with all of his lost family members, who escort him to see La Muerte to find Maria. However, he finds that Xibalba is now sitting on the throne of the Land of Remembered, because Maria recovered from her one snakebite – and will now marry Jaoquin for the good of the town, causing Xibalba to win the bet. Manolo, his mother, and his grandfather then have to find a way to the Land of the Forgotten to tell La Muerte of Xibalba’s treachery, and get back to the Land of the Living – to save Maria from marriage, and the town from Chakal. Spoiler alert – it has a happy ending.
Directed by former animation director Jorge R. Gutierrez, the story is wonderful, and the movie is absolutely beautiful. The animation is mind-blowing and the celebration of the Day of the Dead is truly touching. The cast is pure perfection.
- Diego Luna plays Manolo with exceptional earnestness. He is such a great hero, because everyone has been in a place of wanting to follow their heart, but also wanting to do what is expected. He gives Manolo great relatability, and a wonderful sense of romance and determination.
- Zoe Saldana plays Maria – giving her just the right amount of spunk as she at first fights against her father’s demands, but then realizes that she should marry Joaquin to keep him there to protect the town. Also - her pet pig is awesome.
- I was a little perplexed by the choice of Channing Tatum to play Joaquin, but the reality is that he’s perfect in the part. He’s supremely confident, but is also well aware that his success is because of the enchanted medal. His absolute cocky assurance is hilarious.
- Ron Perlman (because he is Del Toro’s muse) plays Xibalba, and is the perfect blend of menace and mischief for the character. He does seem to genuinely love La Muerte (a little bit of Thanos there), but is also determined to beat her so that the can get out of the truly depressing Land of the Forgotton.
- Kate del Castillo is a huge star in Mexico, and she is the perfect choice for La Muerte – she makes her warm and kind, and patient with Xibalba – until she realizes that she has been duped.
- Christina Applegate plays Mary Beth – the tour guide who handles the tough kids and basically serves as the narrator of the story. She’s very important in walking the kids through the events, and reassuring them at some of the more difficult points.
- There is once casting choice I did not understand – and that is Ice Cube as the Candle Maker. It’s not that he is bad, he’s just fine –but he very much is Ice Cube, and I’m not sure he fit in the story – he was more distracting than anything.
- Hector Elizondo is perfect as Carlos Sanchez, Manolo’s father, who is bound and determined to get his son to live up to the Sanchez name as a legendary bullfighter – and will not stand to hear any mention of the song-playing.
- Danny Trejo is in this (of course he is), and he plays Manolo’s grandfather, Skeleton Luis (everyone in the Land of the Remembered are skeletons). He’s hilarious, and really puts the skills he picked up in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids movies to use here. There’s not a trace of Machete…in a good way.
- Carlos Alazraqui of Reno 911 fame plays General Posada – Maria’s father. He’s determined to get Joaquin to stay and protect the town, even at the expense of his daughter’s happiness.
- Ana de la Reguera plays Carmen – Manolo’s mother, who is thrilled to see him, but then is shocked to see him that soon in the Land of the Remembered, so she helps him on his journey to return to the land of the living.
- The members of Manolo’s mariachi band, which are over-the-top comic relief, are played by Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, and Ricardo el Mandril Sanchez.
- Dan Navarro plays Chakal – the bandit king,
- It’s also worth mentioning that Placido Domingo (yes, that Placido Domingo) plays one of Manolo’s other skeleton relatives, Jorge.
Honestly, see this movie. It is so incredibly beautiful – both in the story, and the visuals. And, man, the visuals! The “real world” is lovely, ancient Mexico is beautiful, then when they get to the Land of the Remembered – it is breathtaking. Each of the people living in the Land of the Remembered is a skeleton, decorated like Mexican Day of the Dead typical skull artwork with amazing colors and designs. And because the characters in the story are wood dolls, that is carried through the movie as well. I was the only person in the theater when I went, which I found really distressing. People will take their kids to see the terrible Ninja Turtles reboot over and over, but not this piece of art? Perhaps the marketing was lacking – I don’t really remember seeing any commercials for it. Well – I will have to start my own word of mouth campaign. Go see this – take your kids, take everybody – it’s wonderful, and see it in 3D.
8 out of 10 – Gained points for the look of the movie, gained points for the mariachi versions of current pop songs – that was really different, but fit perfectly. Gained points for the nuns who sang everything. Gained points for the story within a story format. Gained points for the Land of the Remembered – what a lovely way to think of the afterlife. Lost points for Ice Cube. Again – not bad, but really distracting.
Bonus Video 1: Pan’s Labyrinth – del Toro’s hard R adult fairy tale that is absolutely hauntingly beautiful. Do not let your kids watch this one.
Bonus Video 2: Desperado – yes, the sequel was called Once Upon A Time in Mexico – but it was not nearly as good (remember the debate about Banderas (who is Spanish) playing a Mexican hero?).
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews: