As we head into summer, a fun thing to do while the kids are out of school is to have a weekly “family movie night” where we can catch up on some of the better films of the past year. One little-known gem that deserves its own family movie night is the brightly animated The Book of Life (2014), directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez. Released briefly last fall, this film’s colorful and unusual animation is uniquely reflective of Mexican culture and a joy to watch.
You can listen to my five-minute review on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.
A Journey Through Life & the Afterlife
The Book of Life is based on a Mexican tradition that is based more on superstition though it is somewhat Christian in appearance. “The Day of the Dead” has roots in the Catholic feast of All Souls on November 2nd, yet has been celebrated (as is shown in the film) in a way that is superstitious. In the film, one’s happiness in the afterlife is controlled by mythical beings and by the memories of those who live on earth—certainly not a Christian view of life after death. Despite this fantastical twist on the afterlife, The Book of Life is a story that deeply reflects a Christian worldview in the plot and choices of the characters.
The Book of Life is the story of Manolo, who, with his best friend Joaquin, is in love with their childhood friend Maria. Manolo’s father wants him to follow family tradition and become a bullfighter, but Manolo wants to become a musician. The majority of the story takes place after the three childhood friends have grown up, as both warrior Joaquin and bull-fighter/musician Manolo try to win the hand of the beautiful Maria. Manolo’s journey takes him through several worlds: from his Mexican hometown to the Land of the Remembered, and finally to the Land of the Forgotten–each setting with its own enchanting visual animation.
Both artistically and narratively, this enchanting film completely engages its audience through wonderful storytelling, imaginative and creative plot twists, complex and sympathetic characters (wonderfully voiced), vivid animation that gives us a taste of Mexican culture, and even a cameo vocal performance by Plácido Domingo! The Book of Life is a particularly diverting family film because the story is complex enough to entertain adults, but simple enough for most children—except the very young—to follow.
(Note that the film is rated PG for its animated violence, including several fights, the bull fights, a criminal that threatens the town and tries to overtake it, and some scary scenes in the Land of the Forgotten that could be difficult for young children. A couple song lyrics and a few jokes that aren’t appropriate for children will hopefully go over their heads.)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I enjoyed The Book of Life so much is because it powerfully raises Christian themes and values, making this film a many-layered delight as well as a great discussion-starter. As you watch the film, you may want to watch for these themes, and choose one or two to discuss afterwards:
- The afterlife is assumed: death is a passageway, not an end
- The importance and support of family—even a family that is deeply flawed
- Heroism defined as selflessness
- The importance of friendship
- Women have smaller supporting roles, but are strong and three-dimensional
- Forgiveness opens the door to love
The Book of Life is a refreshingly entertaining and wholesome story with deeply Christian themes that can be appreciated by the whole family.