As a child, until around seven or eight years old, I was convinced that Aladdin was Mexican. I was positive. Here was a character that looked like me, regardless of any song lyrics identifying a fictionalized “Arabia” as the setting of the film; I had found a character I could identify with. Now, as an adult, there is an animated movie that not only features a variety of Mexican characters; characters with depth, flaws, virtues, humor, bravery, and families; but a movie that is both a love letter to a culture so rarely seen on screen, and an articulation of the experience of young Mexican and Latino Americans today: young people straddling borders that are cultural, geographic, and generational.
“The Book of Life” is produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge R. Guittierez and is a brilliant, fun, and emotionally gratifying journey that, despite being aimed for kids, has a lot to offer, especially for the generations of Latinos who’ve grown up here in the U.S. The story is that of Manolo(Diego Luna), the youngest in a line of bullfighters, finding his own path while pursuing the love his life Maria(Zoe Saldana) who’s also being courted by their mutual best friend Joaquin(Channing Tatum), the town hero. Somehow, it manages to exceed the limitations of similar heroic journeys and stories of doomed love triangles; it become something new.
The visuals are beautiful and truly unlike anything else on screen. The soundtrack in particular is a treat, featuring covers of contemporary and classic American pop/rock songs, along with original music. This is truly one of the most apt metaphors for young Latino Americans. Here you have the meeting and melding of cultures in a language that everyone can understand, music. Spanish guitars combined with the lyrics to Radiohead’s “Creep” as Manolo sings: “I don’t belong here” is a sentiment that applies perfectly to so many of our experiences. The ability to forge something new out of different cultural influences is a struggle so many young people are familiar with. Featuring cultural references of both Mexican and American cultures, the Spanish words the film includes throughout, and the nods to pop culture both, Latino and American (Placido Domingo and Ice Cube both voice characters); the film creates is able to maintain a tone that is comprehensive and inclusive to all audiences; but particularly appreciated by those of us who’s everyday lives are colored by such vibrant tones.
Repeatedly, this movie is able to navigate so many different issues. Finding a way to appeal to the humors of both children and the adults that brought them is no easy feat; yet, here it is accomplished with more grace then the usual cheap wink to the grown-ups in the room. Here is a love triangle with the guy you root for, the pretty girl, and the villainous suitor; but handled with a complexity rarely seen in kids movies. Joaquin is a good guy despite his various flaws and pursuance of Maria(who it’s clear should end up with Manolo); he manages to be a self-sacrificing and charming friend to both of them. Maria refuses to allow herself to be marginalized as any sort of damsel in distress and extols the virtues of self ownership, the ability to speak her mind, and education (“Did I tell you I studied Fencing” & “Did I tell you I also studied Kung Fu”). She’s able to call out Manolo and Joaquin saying, “You two are acting like fools” ( when they are) and questions the expected roles of women to cook and clean.
Furthermore, the issues of Death and mortality are treated in an entirely unique and important way for a movie aimed at young people. One of the most beautiful things about the film, and the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, is how the remembrance of those we’ve left behind and the celebration of life is really the most important thing. So often kids’ movies gloss over these ideas, but here is one that actually discusses the loss of life and how we as humans process that experience. For a child who has lost a mom or dad to see a movie and learn it’s okay to miss them, to celebrate their life, and move on knowing that their loved ones will stay with them for as long as they are remembered; that’s a beautiful thing.
A movie set in Mexico, which according to the film is “The center of the universe,” allows for audiences to witness a fun, if fictionalized, culture that isn’t portrayed that often. It features an amazingly talented cast of actors with names like ours, and animated characters that look like us; and this is something valuable. It’s so easy to look at the media we and the young people in our lives consume and just accept it at face value. However, there is something about a movie like this, especially since it is aimed at children, that makes one realize just how important it is to be able to see our stories on the big screen. Latinos are not invisible; our stories are beautiful, colorful, funny, harrowing, and inspiring; and so are we. It’s super exciting to me that young Latino kids out there today have a movie like “The Book of Life” to help them remember that.