dir: Jorge Gutierrez
Sure, there are plenty of animated movies, perhaps too many of them, but few of them are based around the Mexican Day of the Dead, which isn’t, inherently, the kind of topic you’d think appropriate for kid fare.
There have been a few death-themed animations of the modern era, connected to Tim Burton (but not directed by him, since he never directed Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman, Coraline or any of those: people just always assume he must have). It’s understandable, in that they aren’t that common. It’s a tough sell as a theme to the marketplace. Not the kids, who I’m sure mostly would be curious, if not Delighted!
It’s more their uneasy parents. Uneasy parents like me. I have long held that there is an association, a connection between kids accepting the mortality of the people around them and their own mortality, and the end of childhood. In the otherwise deeply terrible movie The Crow, the villain is introduced talking to his sister, saying something along the lines of “Childhood ends when you realise you’re gonna die”.
It’s irrational, I know, but I’ve never let go of that line. You’d think the take away I should have, um, taken away from that terrible movie is not to watch The Crow movies ever again. Instead I’ve managed to make the avoidance of talking about Death a staple of my lackadaisical and lacklustre parenting.
Whatever works. I would have had reluctance letting my daughter watch this flick had she been a few year’s younger (in the same way that I vetoed her watching ParaNorman when I found out what the horrible plot was), but now it’s hardly an issue. Plus Death Itself is pretty innocuous in this. I can’t say how much of this story is “true” to Mexican traditions regarding how they think about the dead, but you’d be wasting your time trying to take lessons away from an animated movie of this ilk.
The mythology cobbled together for this flick, a flick that I enjoyed, as did my daughter, mostly uses its aesthetic elements because they’re so recognisable. I’m pretty sure that the actual word for that ‘stuff’ or that look is calaca, which is Spanish for skeleton, but the kids at my daughter’s school just call it ‘Day of the Dead’. It’s stylised skulls and such, decorated with candy and/or flowers. The flowers are important.
And wouldn’t you know it; the Mexican Day of the Dead itself also plays a big role in this flick. From an animation perspective this isn’t trying to compete with any of the Pixar level stuff. In fact, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to simplify some of the designs in order to perhaps stretch the budget further.
The overarching narrative device is that a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) for some reason decides to tell a bunch of ‘troubled’ kids on an excursion to the museum a story about death and stuff.
So she kidnaps these kids for, I dunno, about an hour and a half? And no-one notices their absence. Poor kids, no-one apparently cares about them enough to notice their 90 minute absence from a school trip.
The guide weaves a tale about there being, at least for Mexicans, two realms where the dead go after they pop their clogs or shuffle off this mortal coil without any clogs on whatsoever. The Land of the Remembered is a joyous happy place where one’s ancestors hang out like sugar-coated skeletons having a great party all the time. The Land of the Forgotten is more like a gentle version of hell, or at the very least it’s like a gloomier version of New Jersey/Geelong. The Happy Death Land is ruled by La Muerte (Kate De Castillo), who is a ravishing depiction of latina Lady Death, complete with a large red hat bordered by the candles lit by mourners for their dead loved ones. Gloomy dead place is ruled by Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who does not care for its aesthetics or its depressed denizens, who eventually fade away to dust.
Xibalba doesn’t want to rule his dull realm no more, and wagers with the seductive La Muerte over the affections of three children living in a village called San Angel that I guess is meant to be the real world. I’d say it’s perhaps set about a 130 years ago or some such?
The three children, who have become the focus of these lords of death for no other reason than that we mortals are but the playthings of the gods, solely here for their amusement, are just harmless kids. Maria (Zoe Saldana), Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are friends, and quite different from each other. The wager of Death involves who will end up marrying whom, which I think is a terrible story right from the outset.
If this flick is aimed at kids below, let’s say, even the tween stage/age, what the hell do they care who marries whom and why? Why the hell should that be the central plank upon which to build the rest of the action?
Anyway, right from the start the boys are seen as competing for Maria’s affections: Joaquin is bold and arrogant, Manolo is sensitive and artistic. Maria, a child, ultimately has to decide between a sopping wet nerd and a blustering jock.
Cue the audience’s indifference. The two boys try to win her affections in different ways, which are I guess dependent on their temperaments: one lets free a bunch of pigs primed for slaughter, the other indulges in derring-do for little reason other than it looks good. Also, Xibalba, looking creepy as his does, isn’t above a little cheating: Joaquin's belief in his own invulnerability is made literal when Xibalba gives him a medal promising invulnerability.
Maria is sent away for a (legally mandated) amount of time so that they’re adults when the story picks up again, and in the interim Joaquin has become even more of an entitled jerk, and Manolo has become whinier and even more treacley.
He at least has a subplot, I guess you could call it, instead of a character arc, where in Maria’s absence, he has focussed on his musical training (he wants to be a mariachi singing endless drippy love songs to and/or about Maria) despite his father’s insistence that he carry on the family tradition of bullfighting. Joaquin becomes a national hero who bellows his own name when entering the action. One imagines his own name would also pass his own lips given a very different situation in which calling something out could be required.
Such speculation isn’t appropriate for a ‘kid’s’ movie, surely. There are more twists and turns as the strange story proceeds, as we’re expected to care whether Manolo and Maria get together forever and marry and have lots of wooden doll children, or whether she’ll end up with Joaquin (of which there is no possibility, in that it’s no competition). The main characters are depicted as stylised wooden dolls when they’re not depicted as skeletons, and the difference is minimal, hence the reference to the wooden babies.
It’s funny, in that there was something of a kerfuffle when Frozen came out and was such a massive hit, that people were pointing out the weird sexist depictions of female characters in Disney products, in which the female protagonists’ eyes are usually way bigger proportionally than their wrists or even waists, exemplifying the manner in which unrealistic body images become so prevalent.
In The Book of Life, another animated movie with stylised representations of males and females, the main female protagonist literally has a toothpick waist and neck, on a body so insect-stylised it makes the girls from Frozen look like the gargantuan Amazonians from Futurama.
But I didn’t care, neither did my daughter, really, about any of that, or about whether Manolo and Maria got together. The flick only really becomes interesting once it performs a variation on the ending of Romeo and Juliet, and one of the main characters ends up in the Land of the Remembered, surrounded by their dead family members.
The flick really came alive for me after that, pardon the pun. It’s just so gorgeous and baroque looking. Also, the laziness of the main story wasn’t really as interesting as the conflict between Manolo and his father (admittedly just as much of a cliché), that escalates and escalates, resulting in another bet with Xibalba against impossible odds, but leading to a resolution true to the character, at least.
That had (slightly) more resonance for me than the other stuff. For a flick about the dead, there is a lot of handholding going on to make sure it never gets too morbid or confronting. Death just seems like a holiday, like a non-stop party surrounded by everyone you ever loved in an aesthetically pleasing environment. To draw anything philosophically from any of this would be a truly pointless exercise.
It’s B-level animation stuff, but it does okay with what it sets out to do, and it’s different enough (though not that different) from all the other animated crap that comes out to seem worthy of our time and interest (mild interest at that).
Nonsense story, interesting visuals, and a cool representation of Death! Sounds like a good Saturday night out for the whole family.
7 times it could also result in your kid turning out to be some Mexican Day of the Dead goth, which would be a fate worse than Death out of 10
“Today was a Good Day – of the Dead” – so sayeth Ice Cube, so sayeth we all – The Book of Life