The Book of Life, director and animator Jorge Gutierrez’s colorful homage to his Mexican family and heritage, is an absolute must-see at this year’s Savannah Film Festival. A project-in-the-making for 14 years, the film explores the place of Mexican folk culture in an increasingly Hispanic United States, but does so in a simple retelling of the world’s most beloved love story: Romeo and Juliet. Gutierrez, whose animation credits include Nickelodeon’s wildly popular El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, as well as Warner Bros. Pictures’ ¡Mucha Lucha!, named his own pair of lovers Manolo and Maria, a bullfighter’s son and a general’s daughter.
We learn about Manolo and Maria in the same way much of us learned about Shakespeare’s original star-crossed duo: through school. The film opens with a class field trip to the local museum—only on this fifth grade expedition the kids on the bus are all detention-bound delinquents. Naturally, they venture off the tour path through a hidden door and down a dark corridor to the basement where they discover the Book of Life, an enormous volume containing all the stories of the world. The balance between this real world museum basement and a fairytale pueblo in Mexico—the home of Manolo and Maria—begins here. It’s a deliberate storytelling, read-along setup that makes the film not so much believable, but rather truly poignant. The audience reads the Book of Life just as the kids do, and in it we learn lessons about love, friendship, family and what it really means to be true to ourselves.
This jumping from real world to book world is mirrored further when Manolo dies and must navigate both the World of the Remembered and the World of the Forgotten, two separate realms for the deceased. Gutierrez pulls heavily from Mexican folklore here, introducing La Muerte, Xibalba and the Candle Maker, three Day of the Dead deities who meddle in the affairs of the living. Manolo makes deals with all three in order to return to life and marry Maria. While the boy-chases-girl, love-affair-gone-wrong trope could seem stale, Book of Life freshens the tale with Maria’s strong streak of womanly independence and matador Manolo’s embrace of his sensitive side. It’s a direct knock to Mexican machismo that adds some true depth to the characters and to the story itself.
Also contributing to the fresh state of this traditional tale is the soundtrack. The film features versions of “I Will Wait” by Mumford & Sons and “Creep” by Radiohead, as well as other modern well-known tracks. Gutierrez describes the process of gaining the rights to these and others songs as a lengthy and difficult challenge, but one that was worth it all the same. The film’s music selection even brought famed opera singer Plácido Domingo onto the set as the voice of Jorge Sanchez, one of Manolo’s dead bullfighting ancestors.
Jorge and all the others are animated in a breathtakingly beautiful marionette puppet style that harkens back to Mexican folk culture. It’s an aesthetic Gutierrez and his wife and muse, Sandra Equihua, developed as a direct reference to Mexico. The marionettes make up Manolo and his family, as well as Maria and the rest of the town, but the kids in the museum are depicted as real human beings.
Just as it began, the film closes with these kids. We depart from San Angel, Mexico, as our school bus pulls away from the curb, and Gutierrez leaves us with a taste of La Muerte, of Manolo and Maria and Mexico that we’re sure never to forget.