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The GW Hatchet

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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

What We’re Watching: ‘The Book of Life’

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Niamh Cahill-Billings.

“The Book of Life”

★★★★✰

Jorge Gutierrez’s newest animated film, “The Book of Life,” is a sweet, vibrant and surprisingly progressive alternative to the bombardment of horror films that normally take over theaters in October.

The film begins on the eve of Dia de los Muertos when La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), the leader of the rambunctious world of remembered souls, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who watches over the desolate world of forgotten souls, make a wager on who will win the pueblo’s sweetheart, Maria (Zoe Saldana).

Promotional poster for "The Book of Life."
Promotional poster for “The Book of Life.”

Xibalba bets that Maria will marry Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the charming Adonis that saves the pueblo from evil, while La Muerta supports Manolo (Diego Luna), a musician forced to follow his family’s bullfighting tradition.

As the plot unravels, this buoyant and refreshing fantasy manages to touch on hevy concepts of death and mortality, gender roles, bullfighting and Latino machismo while also maintaining the innocence and naiveté that make the film enjoyable for all ages.

“The Book of Life” joins the ranks of the growing body of animated movies that have abandoned cliché and antiquated sentiments of what it means to be a princess, petitioning instead to represent a wider spread of cultures in film.

Woven throughout the scenes is an American-Mexican fusion of style, a theme typical of Gutierrez work, given that he grew up in Tijuana, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Aside from boasting the largest Latino voice cast in animated movie history, the film’s costume design represents a colorful amalgamation of cultures.

Manolo, the film’s protagonist, sports a Johnny Cash-inspired matador costume meant to emphasize growing globalization and cultural mélange between Mexico and the United States, Gutierrez said in a post-screening interview. Maria’s costume was inspired by Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, who dressed primarily in traditional Mexican attire.

But the soundtrack stands out as one of the best aspects of the film.

Diego Luna, the voice of Manolo, performs a wide variety of Latino covers of artists from Radiohead to Biz Markie and Mumford & Sons, crafting a mariachi interpretation of pop classics. While older audiences will recognize and appreciate the music choices, younger audiences are enthralled at the goofy mariachi band performing the popular tunes.

The one thing the film is missing is a villain: there’s no evil stepmother typical to so many animated films. Each character is multi-faceted and has understandable motives.

Instead, Gutierrez focuses on the pursuit of adventure rather than the strict good-versus-evil plot employed time and again, adding to the progressive nature of the film.

“The Book of Life” is a refreshing and dynamic experience, despite the heavy and somewhat controversial themes the film confronts. A focus on youth and the saliency of family with the backdrop of colorful Mexican culture lends the film a sense of airiness and ease, especially with the festive setting of El Dia de los Muertos.

It would be naive to say that cartoon culture is no longer dominated by European storylines featuring primarily white casts, but the growing trend to represent and celebrate other cultures, exemplified by “The Book of Life,” is both refreshing and promising.

Released: October 17
Director: Jorge Gutierrez (“El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”)
Genre: Animation/Adventure
Cast: Diego Luna (“Milk,” “Elysium”), Zoe Saldana (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”), Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street”) Kate del Castillo (“Under the Same Moon”), Ron Perlman (“Drive,” “Tangled”)

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