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"The Book of Life" is a Diverse Feast for the Eyes and Heart

I've been waiting for The Book of Life since the trailer first hit theaters earlier this year. And why wouldn't I? Here's an animated movie that doesn't draw from a worn Western fantasy tale, is not whitewashed to high hell, and looked to be alive with some of the most vibrant imagery out there. As much as I loved Frozen, Tangled and other contemporary animated flicks, I feel that all too often, they're incredibly standard, have fairly generic messages, and... well, are predominantly filled with white people.

So when I saw the trailer for The Book of Life, I felt like I was in for something far different. Maybe it would be bog-standard, story-wise, but at least it would have some cool animation, a killer art style, and a diverse cast. What I didn't expect, though, was a movie that would come out of left field and shock me with how absolutely different it is from other kids movies. This is a movie every child should see, I think. And every adult. And every human. Let me give you some reasons why this movie is one of the most necessary films of the year, and (hopefully) convince you to go see it.

A Happy Story of Life... and Death

Guys, her skin is made of sugar crystals. It's amazing.
Death in kids movies is absolutely terrible. At least, that's how it's portrayed. When anyone dies in a kids movie, it's usually a huge, tragic event that shakes the foundation of the very movie. It's the end. They're gone. Caput. Now, I don't subscribe to a belief of the afterlife, but I also don't think that death is the complete ending to somebody's life and legacy. As long as somebody is there to remember your existence, to remember you throughout generations, then you're not truly dead, right? Right. But that's not what an onslaught of films would have you believe. Pretty grim message, I think. Why be so nihilistic about death? It's a natural part of life, shouldn't we celebrate it? Acknowledge it and accept it?

That's why The Book of Life does so much right at the very beginning. Drawing from Mexican folklore, audiences are told of two afterlives, one which is a colorful, happy party, another which is a dreary, desolate and empty place. The former is for the dead that have been remembered, the latter is for those who have been forgotten. Basically, the message is that as long as somebody remembers you ever existed, you won't ever disappear. Your memory will be kept alive by people for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Death is put on display and celebrated, giving kids (and adults) who have a primordial fear of death a positive spin on the process. As one of those individuals, I know it certainly helped me feel a lot better about the whole idea. If this movie had existed when I was a little kid, it would have meant the world to me.

Masculinity Put to the Test

Channing Tatum is a little "wooden" in this movie. I am so sorry.
How many movies tell men in the audience to "be a man"? "Man up"? "Grow a pair"? Let's face it, if you're a guy, you're going to be told that at some point in your life, and it's not fair. What if you don't want to conform to standard masculinity? What if you want to do your own thing that society says isn't "manly" enough? According to The Book of Life, that's completely fine. The main character, Manolo (Diego Luna, who I'd never heard of but is amazing here,) comes from a long line of bullfighters, but he doesn't want to tease and kill bulls. He wants to sing and bring joy, not stab and bring death. Even though his father repeatedly shuns him, he never gives up. He never loses sight of what he wants to be, of who he wants to be. He refuses to "be a man." Instead, he opts to be a human being and do whatever he wants to do. Which, as a guy who doesn't prescribe to standard, societal expectations of masculinity, is a refreshing message.

Also vital to this movie's portrayal of masculinity is the way in which women are treated by men. Too often, women are portrayed as loving domestic servants who owe men favors for their kindness. Not so here. The main female character, Maria (played by the always awesome Zoe Saldana,) is walked home at one point by longtime friend, Joaquin (a surprisingly great Channing Tatum.) For walking her home, for keeping her company, he sticks out his cheek in expectation of a kiss. A kiss, as luck would have it, that he doesn't receive. Joaquin is not rewarded for being a "nice guy" (he's actually a bit of an egomaniac... like most self-proclaimed "nice guys.") His reward is simply a continued friendship with Maria. In an age where guys whine and moan about being "friendzoned," this is a super-important message for little boys. Being nice doesn't mean you're owed anything. Period. And The Book of Life gets this. Why don't more movies?

Whitewashing? Not In My Kids Movie!

Yes, there is a "Good Day" joke, and it's fucking glorious.
Did you know that, a few years ago, there were more Hispanic children born in America than Caucasian children? Like, by a decent margin, they outnumbered them. This is a cool thing to me, because a predominantly white America spits in the face of everything America means to me... and I'm saying this as a white guy! Why, then, is our media filled with mostly white people? Why are people of color relegated to token roles? Why are people of color in animated movies often portrayed by white people? Why are movies that are predominantly filled with people of color given shoestring budgets and no theatrical screenings? People behind The Book of Life were probably wondering the same thing. Which is why this movie is fantastic, to me. Here's a movie where, predominantly, people of color are actually played by people of color. It shouldn't be mind-blowing, but in today's world, it unfortunately is.

With the exception of Tatum and Ron Perlman (who also does a fantastic job,) every character here is represented by somebody of their own race. There's no "funny" white guy doing an insulting "street" voice behind the God-like Candle Maker; instead, there's a self-referential and charming Ice Cube. The three street musicians are not insultingly portrayed by a Rob Schneider or a... uh... I dunno, a Jeff Dunham; we've got Gabriel Iglesias and the legendary Cheech Marin lending their voices. This is a movie where actors, big-name or not, are allowed to have agency playing characters who they can identify with on a racial level. Compare this to Exodus, a Moses movie with an all-white main cast, because y'know, ticket sales and disgusting racism that still exists in Hollywood. Which is sad, considering that star power might let it monetarily overpower the more sincere, more heartfelt Book, which is filled with people are celebrating their heritage, their folklore, their history. If you think Christian Bale deserves a single cent for playing an Egyptian man, then congrats, you're part of the problem. Go give your money to a movie that's earned it.

Leave Your Talking Animals and Eurocentric Sensibilities Behind, Kids

Not a single silver spire or green tree in sight.
On top of all the narrative things that The Book of Life does right, it's also just a sumptuous, beautiful, fantastical visual wonderland of a film. The narrative framing device of a woman presenting the story to a group of children using little wooden models allows for some beautiful artistic choices. Every character has distinct joints, props sometimes look as if they are made of paper, different things look as if they are painted. On the same token, it never reaches the almost-parody level of something like The Lego Movie, because the worlds these characters are plunged into feel very immersive, very real. They are bright, vibrant, otherworldly, yes, but they don't feel like toy sets. They feel like living and breathing places that the audience is being whisked away to. My mouth hung open several, several times at some of the stunning visuals in this movie, and I'd hazard to say yours will too.

What's also really cool is the lack of cutesy, cloying crap that comes with normal kids films, as well as the incredibly bland European influence. If I have to see another talking horse, red dragon, or white castle, I'm going to vomit. Instead, we've got vibrant, colorful imagery infused with Mexican folklore and sensibilities, unlike anything I think I've ever seen in a modern kids film. It's a celebration of another culture, and a beautiful one at that. As somebody who has lived in and traveled to New Mexico, and who is enamored with the melting pot of cultures that exists there, this is the absolute best portrayal of the Day of the Dead that I think I could ever see. It's not portrayed as some bizarre ritual, but as a bright celebration of multiple planes of existence. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Please Give This Movie Some Money. Anything. Really.

Look, there's Pop! toys. You like those, right? Right?!
Look, The Book of Life isn't a Disney or DreamWorks flick. It's not going to get the big marketing push or toy deals or fast food tie-ins that those movies are. I'm not associated with the movie, at all. I'm not going to be affected if this movie doesn't do well. Well, that's a lie. I'll be emotionally affected. Because this is a movie with heart that dares to do something different in a bland, unimpressive world of children's cinema. It has great messages, great visuals, great music, great... um, great everything. I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. And I think you will too.

Plus, there's a fucking cover of Radiohead's "Creep" thrown in. When's the last time you saw that in a kids movie? Come on.


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