FEATURE: Before Coco, there was The Book of Life

January 17, 2018

This coming Friday, Disney Pixar’s Coco finally arrives in UK cinemas having already opened in most other territories last year. Having already seen the film, I can confirm the rapturous response that has been levied at it by the mainstream press worldwide that it’s really great and one of Pixar’s most diverse, emotionally engaging and respectable pictures. My full review will run on Wednesday.


The film opened so well in Mexico the weekend before Día de los Muertos that it became the highest-grossing film of all-time in the country which is no mean feat. But it wasn’t always destined for such acclaim when it started out. In 2016 shortly after production had begun, Disney made an absurd request to trademark the phrase "Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) for merchandising applications. This was rightfully met with condemnation from the Mexican American community in the United States and the decision was rectified.


But there was also the initial pitch for the film, which differed drastically by having it be about an American child learning about his Mexican heritage while dealing with the death of his mother. Thankfully, they realised their misjudgement of the misappropriation of such understandings of Mexican culture, especially since nobody on board at that early stage was in fact Mexican. In 2015, Pixar hired Lalo Alcaraz, a Mexican American cartoonist who lampooned their attempted trademarking efforts, to consult on the film in a kind of consultant group for the cultural representation.


Seeing such a vibrant culture and celebrated folklore done justice onscreen was of utmost importance for the team, and filtering it through the western gaze was probably not the right approach at the time. But back in 2014, a relatively small feature film kind of did exactly this in a different way, as well as covering similar ground to Coco. That film was The Book of Life.

Directed and co-written by celebrated Mexican animator Jorge Gutierrez, the story is a romantic fantasy adventure that follows bullfighter Manolo Sánchez (Diego Luna) who, on the Day of the Dead, falls into the elaborate game being played by the gods and embarks on an afterlife adventure to fulfil the expectations of his family and friends.


Interestingly, the US-based animation team behind the production at Reel FX Creative Studios were not allowed by Gutierrez to draw and research from Mexico by visiting the country, and that they should address any queries to him as he feared they would be taken in by the more tourism aspects of the surface culture.


The story is told through the framing device of a group of US children on a detention trip to a museum, where they are ushered by a friendly tour guide into the Mexican Room and told a story from the titular ‘Book of Life’. It’s a neat way of circumventing the criticisms of cultural appropriation while also using it as a means of teaching a literal lesson of another culture to a young audience, while the characters of the story being told resemble wooden marionette figures.

While the love triangle story between two rival love interests for a young woman’s heart unfolds in the small Mexican town called San Angel, there’s a wager going on between the gods on who will succeed; La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten.


La Muerte is based on Santa Muerte, a female deity associated with predominantly with death, but also healing, protection, and the safe delivery of devotees to the afterlife often depicted as a skeletal figure draped in ropes. While Xibalba feels more like a composite character, as Xibalba translates to "place of fear", an underworld ruled over by the Maya death gods.

Many of the same elements that appear in Coco also bare a significance in representation here. From the celebration of Día de los Muertos and death as a central theme, to the exploration of the land of the Land of the Remembered and the foundations of the belief in the memory of family members sustaining beings in the afterlife, as well as marigold petal’s and Ofrendas being significant to the celebration.


The film is beautifully animated with rich, popping textures that compliment a very graceful and singular artistic design ripped straight from the concept art. But beyond its remarkable visuals and character models, the story is one that shares a passion for its heritage and mythology within Mexican folklore whilst also crafting its own form of a timeless story. While it may be an easy plot to spell out, that takes nothing away from its more abiding qualities as a very traditionally told tale of love, friendship, honour and family. Its characters are all remarkably well performed by a cast of mixed ethnicities, and it's handling of gender expectation is very encouraging.

It's also a remarkably funny film that doesn't treat its audience with contempt. The themes of life and death and played with black comedy and without fear as though existing all on the same plane (at one point, one of the detention students comically questions why Mexican culture is so obsessed with death and that they’re “just kids”). There’s even the inclusion of acoustic renditions of popular music from Mumford & Sons to Radiohead, and it makes sense given the context of the narrative framing of a tale been woven for modern children to understand.


Sure, it shares visual cues and a subject matter with the upcoming Disney Pixar feature, but it also shares its reverence and respect for a deeply interesting and ancient culture. It was a decent hit when it came out, but seems to be gaining more attention in the wake of the release of Coco and it’s really deserved. It's a spectacular animation made with affection and knowing nerve and deserves a lot more love than it currently gets.

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