The major thrust of this series is my attempting to highlight the profound messages in the stories that we so often perceive as being beneath us. Another way to say this would be that I want to talk about the cool stuff going on in kids’ movies. My last post delved into that a little more in depth, so if this doesn’t make sense or you want to catch up, go check that out.
But if we’re going to talk about stories, I figured this movie would be the best place to start, because that’s exactly what it’s all about. It’s a recent favorite of mine called The Book of Life.
If you’re like me, this movie very well could have slipped under your radar. It came out in October of 2014, when most adults were paying more attention to films like Gone Girl (which we’ll also be discussing in the near future- not as a part of a series on children’s movies, though. That’d be pretty messed up…), Birdman, Fury, and Whiplash. All good stories, and arguably better think pieces, but, as some concerned citizen in a town hall meeting is always bound to bring up: what about the children? Great question. As it turns out, while these other films were pulling double duty vying for Oscar nominations and exploring dark themes that stories can act as vessels to convey, The Book of Life came along and offered a crash course on the art of storytelling itself.
That’s right. The whole movie is about storytelling. That, and so much more.
What’s Going On (Plot Stuff):
The movie opens on a bus full of young children who are on a detention field trip to the museum. A guide brings them through a secret entrance where she then reveals the Book of Life, a massive tome containing every story in the history of the world. And it’s through this book that she begins to tell the main story of the film. The narrative goes that there are three children who are all best friends: Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with Maria and constantly trying to win her affections. Joaquin does this by impressing her with his fighting skills and legacy as the son of a great warrior, while Manolo sings and plays guitar (despite his family legacy of bullfighting).
Watching from above, Xibalba and La Muerte, two deities of death, make a wager on which boy Maria will fall in love with, like a couple sitting down to watch and bet on the ending of a 90s romantic comedy. La Muerte chooses Manolo, and Xibalba, Joaquin. Upon their selections, they each visit their “champions” undercover. This is on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, so the two deities visit the boys under guise of elderly people asking for bread. Manolo gives some of his bread to La Muerte, who in turn gives him a blessing. Meanwhile, Joaquin withholds his bread from Xibalba, who then offers him a trade- bread for the medal of everlasting life which makes its wearer impervious to death and injury. Shortly after these exchanges, as life seems to be going normally for the trio of children, Maria is sent away to a convent. Joaquin, aided by his medal, ascends to military glory, while Manolo continues to grow in skill as a bullfighter.
After several years, Maria returns, reigniting the competition. I don’t want to give any spoilers because I want to highly encourage you to watch it (with your kids if you have them), but know that this is only the start.
Why It’s So Dang Good:
There’s so much going on in this movie that’s valuable. First, it operates incredibly well as Myth.
At the beginning of the story, the woman telling the story mentions that the setting, Mexico, is, as we all know, the center of the universe. And each of the characters fill a fairly familiar archetype. Gods bet against one another using mortal champions who they then manipulate. These are tried, true, and classical elements of most myths, and to introduce these narrative devices in a film for kids is unreal to me. By the time these kids get to 9th grade and start having to read Greek mythology, they’ll think back and be like, “yo, this reads really similarly to The Book of Life.” Then they’ll get A+s on all their English papers for that unit and everyone will be happy.
Not only that, but the whole thing is a breath of fresh air culturally. The whole framing narrative is a stellar example of cultural sharing (the evil twin of which is cultural appropriation) as the museum guide (who, spoilers, turns out to be La Muerte in disguise) reveals the richness, beauty, and complexity of a handful of Mexican cultural traditions with a younger generation.
And let’s not forget who the kids are who are being told the story in the first place. These are the detention kids, the bad kids who have been counted out and even feared by the adults around them. But that’s the whole reason the guide takes them to the book instead of the main museum. There’s a conviction that the power of story is such that it can immerse someone and engage their imagination, and that they will benefit from that. Not only that, but that it can offer an ideal as a feasible possibility for reality.
That is to say that if a story is about how true love conquers all, even death, then there’s also a deeper truth being offered that pursuing that sort of true love is a way that you can actually live your life.
And what is the story being offered to these “delinquent” children? What do they see in the characters?
There’s a tension of loyalty to family and loyalty to self. Manolo is supposed to be a bull fighter, and he’s very gifted in it. Yet, what he loves is music. In fact, the whole film pits creativity as the antithesis of violence. Manolo would bull fight, however, he insists that killing the bull at the end is wrong, and refuses to do it. And this all culminates (again, spoilers) in that, in this supernatural showdown with a massive bull, the way that Manolo wins is by apologizing. What even is that? Where do you see that?
As far as conflict resolution, The Book of Life tells more of the Gospel story in that sequence than any movie I’ve seen, perhaps ever. We are often so focused on victory on an instance-by-instance basis that we forget that winning doesn’t mean we’ve resolved conflict or violence, but merely that we’re ultimately the benefactors. The way to resolve conflict and violence is to dismantle it, to act outside of the parameters of violence. To apologize.
There are three deity characters that, in number, reflect the Trinity, but in role, instead reflect a different aspect of God. There’s the Candlemaker, who lives in this sanctuary that houses millions of candles, each one representing a life. He can be seen as representing Creator God. But then there are La Muerte and Xibalba, each deities ruling over two places of the afterlife: the Land of the Remembered (or, Heaven) and the Land of the Forgotten (or, Hell), respectively. I love this, because it’s not too often that we think of Yahweh as God of death.
But would it be easier to draw that line if I told you La Muerte and Xibalba were in love? Because that sounds a little more like the God I know. Throughout the movie, Xibalba is indeed portrayed as a Death that tricks, intimidates and otherwise antagonizes, while La Muerte has a love and appreciation of the mortals, and laments that Xibalba is a deceiver and manipulator. However, in the end, we see that Xibalba is moved by Manolo’s actions with the bull (whoa, pacifism making more of an impact than aggression, what a weird thing to teach children), and softens some. And ultimately, Xibalba, the embodiment of the terrifying and inescapable Death is subverted by his love for La Muerte in a way not dissimilar to the way that God’s participation in death (you know, on the cross) works ceaselessly to not only relate to us through the phenomenon of mortality, but also to subvert Death by love so that it is not the ultimate force at work on our lives.
And all of this isn’t even mentioning the more technical parts of the movie. Guillermo Del Toro has an incredible sense of vision that does nothing but enhance the whole watching experience. Simply, it’s just a really pretty movie. The music is great and really serves to highlight the themes in the narrative, as well as the characters. And, the whole aesthetic of the film, the characters all being wooden figures, is all but directly encouraging the children watching to then go home and either make or just pick up action figures and dolls of their own, and make up their own stories. And yes, there are annoying sidekick characters every now and then that get the cheap laughs. That’s part of it. I just roll my eyes and smile at it anyway because I know that when I was 7 years old, I thought Jar Jar Binks was sincerely funny.
The Short and Skinny:
Creativity conquers violence.
Love your family, and be bold in what you love.
Generosity brings blessing whereas selfishness brings transaction.
People are not things to be competed for.
Learn from people different from you, and let them share their stories with you.
And as the Candlemaker so aptly put it: write your own stories.
I hope you’re as excited about this movie and/or this series as I am. Maybe this did that for you, or maybe it did the opposite. But don’t decide that until you watch it yourself. I truly believe you’ll be better for it. This is a movie that has a lot to offer culturally, aesthetically, and even theologically. At the end of the day, though, it’s also just a lot of fun to watch.
So go watch.