The Book of Life
There aren't many cheerful children's tales about death. But Mary Beth, a museum tour guide, has one to tell.
You see, she's regaling a bunch of rowdy kids with a story about the Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It's a Mexican holiday, she tells them, a magical occasion when the spirits of the departed return to earth to receive gifts and remembrances from their still-living family members. And if the living fondly recall those ancestors and celebrate their lives, then the dead get to keep spending their afterlife in the Land of the Remembered—a colorful place of joy and revelry. But if those who've passed on are remembered no more, then they're relegated to the not-so-pleasant, dark and crumbling Land of the Forgotten.
And that's what Mary Beth's story is all about.
It's also about three beloved friends—Maria, Manolo and Joaquin—who have known one another since childhood. Of course, as they grow older, it's no surprise when both of the boys fall in love with pretty Maria. And on the Day of the Dead celebration, those handsome gents—one square-jawed and courageous, the other sensitive and true—vie for the hand of the one they love most.
And that's what Mary Beth's story is about ... almost.
It's also the tale of La Muerte and Xibalba, two powerful deities who oversee the Lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten. On the Day of the Dead these gods place bets on who Maria will choose as her beloved. But, of course, the devilishly deceitful Xibalba can't help but cheat a bit to tilt the odds in his favor.
How so, you ask?
Well, it involves a special medal of everlasting life, and Maria's very existence is threatened, and one of our brave heroes is killed, which necessitates impassioned treks of love through both the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, and then there are ghostly ancestors and attacking banditos and ...
That's still not all Mary Beth's story is about!
Maria, Manolo and Joaquin are true-blue friends. Even when Manolo and Joaquin are contending with each other to win Maria's hand, they rarely lose sight of their undergirding friendship. They also fight for what is right and save those around them. In fact, in a final battle with banditos attacking a town, each man puts his life on the line to save the other's.
Manolo is also willing to speak up about the things he believes to be wrong. In the face of his father's demands that he carry on the family's bullfighting tradition, Manolo makes it clear that he won't kill a bull in the ring. He's no wimp here and is actually quite talented with that red cape, but he'd rather sing a song than take a sword to the animal, and twice he does just that.
As the movie unfolds, we learn more about Manolo's difficult relationship with his father, all of which is related to the family's legacy as champion bullfighters. When Manolo refuses to take up the full mantle of that legacy, his father essentially disowns him. As Manolo proves his courage and worthiness, however, he earns back his father's respect. His dad eventually tells him, "I should have been a better father. I am very sorry."
Maria, meanwhile, is a self-sacrificial sort, too. Not only does she step up to fight for the townspeople, she pushes one person out of the way and takes a snake bite in his stead. She's also willing to put "duty before her heart" when her father asks her to marry someone for the sake of protecting the town.
From start to finish, The Book of Life emphasizes having a good, pure heart. Manolo is told, "May your heart always be pure and courageous." The movie ends with La Muerta saying, "Love, true love, the really, really good kind of love, never dies."
"What's with Mexicans and death?" asks one of the school kids as he hears about the Day of the Dead and the many people who die in the tour guide's story. It's a good question. And another one might be, "What's with the theology of this film?"
More so than many (if not most) animated movies, The Book of Life presents an elaborate set of ancient ideas with regard to life, death and the afterlife, a worldview that in Mexican culture is largely descended from Aztec roots. A person's experience of the afterlife isn't linked so much to what he did or believed while he was alive. Instead, it's closely connected to whether or not his descendants still remember and revere him. The playing out of that critical concern goes a long way toward determining which of two very different afterlife fates someone experiences—and keeps experiencing. In the Land of the Remembered, a constant colorful fiesta takes place. As for the Land of the Forgotten, it's a dark and bleak destination where dead souls blow away like ashes in a breeze.
One of our heroes gets bitten by a poisonous, two-headed snake (one on each end), after which he ends up traveling through these two very different underworld realms. There he meets up with many of his skeletal ancestors. He also meets the Candle Maker, a godlike being who's said to be the balancing deity between the two realms of the dead. In his Cave of Souls, the Candle Maker points to millions of glowing candles he's created—each one representing a living soul. He says he doesn't have the power to interfere in the workings of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, but becuase it's the Day of the Dead, he can "bend the rules" a bit.
La Muerte and Xibalba, meanwhile, are two mini-gods, married deities who rule over their respective underworld kingdoms. They can also magically manipulate things in the real world (Xibalba turns his staff into a snake and both disguise themselves as humans, for instance). We hear (as La Muerte and Xibalba make their wager) that these gods have quite different takes on humanity. La Muerte believes humankind is good and noble and pure, while Xibalba believes people are corruptible and susceptible to temptation when it comes to getting what they want. To some extent, they're both shown to be right, though good triumphs over evil in the end.
When the Candle Maker shows Manolo his page in the Book of Life, it's blank. That prompts the godlike being to tell Manolo, "You didn't live the life that was written for you. You're living your own story," a message that hints at the age-old tension between predestination and free will. The result? Manolo must do battle with a monstrous amalgamation of all the bulls his ancestors ever killed. Instead of fighting the creature, however, he sings a song, calms the raging beast and asks for its forgiveness. Similarly, Xibalba eventually asks his wife for forgiveness for centuries of devious behavior.
One scene involves townspeople gathering around altars and gravesites, praying for lost relatives as the ghostly forms of their ancestors hover nearby. A number of people from the Land of the Remembered are given flesh once again in the real world. Eventually, the story suggests that no one is ever truly dead and gone unless they move into the Land of the Forgotten.
A Catholic priest and a trio of nuns are prominent members of the town. Characters cross themselves. As a young girl, Maria is said to have been sent away to the Convent of the Perpetual Flame of Purity.
Though all of this fable's characters are represented as wooden marionette-like figures, some of them—including Maria and La Muerte—still show their curves. Maria and Manolo kiss, as do La Muerte and Xibalba (behind the cover of her oversized hat). A mariachi band member suggests Manolo woo Maria with the Rod Stewart song "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" He croons, "If you want my body/And you think I'm sexy/Come on, sugar, let me know" as he wiggles his wooden backside. Another song includes the lyric, "I live for your touch."
When Mary Beth tells of both Maria and Manolo being bitten by poisonous snakes, a young listener cries out, "What kind of story is this? We're just kids!" And it is of special concern, actually, that Manolo so willingly gives up his life for the sole purpose of pursuing the love of his life into the afterlife.
In all of the many melees in this tale—between humans and large animals and townspeople and large banditos—the violence is bloodless. (These folks are made of wood, after all.) But there is quite a lot of violence (and death) here, and at times various battles can get intense. Joaquin is given a magical medal that keeps him from dying. So even when he is pummeled and beaten—which happens several times—he's not harmed. Later, the medal changes hands repeatedly, always protecting its wearer. In one case, an individual is caught in a deadly explosion with a bomb-wielding bandito, only to find that he was secretly given the medal and is unscathed.
Confrontations with rampaging bulls are kinda scary at times; threatening flames leap from the body of one massive bull in the underworld. The banditos, and especially their oversized leader, Chakal, are threatening-looking fellows who bellow and smash their opponents with mighty blows. One of Manolo's skeletal ancestors runs into a large wall and breaks into pieces. For a while he is just a talking skull, until he gets his body back.
Crude or Profane Language
Someone meanly labels another person a "misbegotten son of a leper's donkey." We hear the exclamation "kick his butt!" Speaking about a huge bull, somebody says, "Man, this is a whole lotta bull."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drinking from goblets is a normal thing at the colorful parties that are thrown. A member of Manolo's mariachi band staggers a bit while admitting that he and his friends have visited four different bars ... twice.
Other Negative Elements
Xibalba's somewhat menancing appearance (part bat, part cat) might make for nighmare fodder. The same could be said of those menancing bulls we've been talking about.
A boy hawking churros is surprised when a passing bird poops on the food, but in a blink he shifts from calling out "Churros!" to "Frosted churros!" A goat defecates.
There is, as mentioned, wagering and cheating going on. We hear a snippet of Radiohead's song "Creep," which boasts the line, "I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo/I don't belong here."
From a movie-loving perspective, this is a pic chock-full of fun stuff for a young audience. There's cartoony bullfighting, bandito besting, and beloved balladeering. The animated characters are cute and colorful. And the vibrant Mexican folk-art world in which they live is visually stunning.
On top of all that, the romantic triangle at the story's center is bursting with nobility, with both suitors being friendly good guys and their love interest being a spunky, self-assured heroine herself. And through all of the heroes' derring-do, this rollicking story gives a big thumbs-up to sincerity and self-sacrificial love. It's the kind of solid cinematic sojourn that kept me as involved as the kids around me. At one point, in fact, a youngster near me in the theater couldn't contain himself and piped up, "Yes! The bad guys lose!"
But looking at things from a more contemplative angle brings the film's central spiritual issues into focus—most notably the tradition of the Day of the Dead and its accompanying theological wanderings.
The film sets up this ghostly reunion day—featuring altars and prayers for the dead, multiple afterlife worlds, wagering overlords and a godlike Candle Maker—as something light, cheery and playful. But in the real world, it's a pagan pageant (occasionally fused with bits of Catholicism) that's still earnestly practiced, and not just in Mexico. It's a celebration that promotes communion with (and in some cases even worship of) the dead—practices repeatedly and roundly condemned in the Bible.
That's obviously a lot less cheery and playful.
Should such a conundrum be avoided altogether by families, or can the ideas (the very good ones right along with the misleading ones) in a movie like this be navigated with conversation and engagement? The answer in this case (due in some measure to the absence of any sort of extreme content) can actually be yes to both sides of that question. But families that choose to go for it will certainly need to tread carefully and with intentional attention given to discussing the core issues of death and salvation, heaven and hell, and how the Bible's truth about them differs in so many radical ways with this vibrantly animated adventure's take.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Voices of Diego Luna as Manolo; Zoe Saldana as Maria; Channing Tatum as Joaquin; Ron Perlman as Xibalba; Kate del Castillo as La Muerte; Christina Applegate as Mary Beth; Ice Cube as Candle Maker
Jorge R. Gutierrez ( )
20th Century Fox
October 17, 2014
January 27, 2015