The Book of Life Review & Interview
The Book of Life released on Blu-ray and DVD today, January 27th. Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons with Writer/Director Jorge R. Gutiérrez, Hollywood tough-guy/Obvious-secret-softy Danny Trejo, and bonafide musical legend Composer Gustavo Santaolalla to discuss this unique animated adventure. And when I say “unique”- I mean it; I guarantee The Book of Life is unlike any cartoon you’ve ever seen.
The story involves a whole lotta death (Who is literally a character in the movie “La Muerta”) and the festival of Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead.) It’s a subject most Americans try to avoid at any cost. In fact, one of the kids in the film asks “What’s up with Mexicans and death?” Director Gutiérrez jokes, “People heard Day of the Dead and thought it was a zombie movie.” But, he goes on, “In Mexican culture death is a normal part of life… the day is for remembering those who are not with us by singing their songs, telling their jokes, cooking their favorite dishes. That’s how we keep them with us.” So the film deals with what could be heavy subject matter with surprising deftness and joy. It’s a party and a true celebration of life. Gutiérrez summed it up by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Death tugs at my ear and says ‘Live, for I am coming.’”
Another singular touch is the music, composed, produced, and often sung by Gustav Santaolalla. Besides an extensive solo career of his own, Santaolalla’s long list of film credits includes the haunting, Academy-Award winning scores of Brokeback Mountain and Babel. Both are very grownup films, and he doesn’t dumb it down for this “kid’s” movie. The tunes are sophisticated, complex, and lovely. Of particular note is “The Apology Song”, where our hero, Manolo, refuses to finish a bull-fight by killing the animal and begs for forgiveness for years of their slaughter. It’s a serious tear-jerker and digs deeper into character than your average cartoon.
But besides the original songs, there are a slew of Ranchero-style covers of rock songs like “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and Radiohead’s “Creep.” That’s no small feat. Radiohead is infamously picky about how their songs are used, of which Gutiérrez was well aware. “Everybody told me, you cannot get that song.” But having Santaolalla signed onboard helped. “Everyone in the music world knows him. It was like, ‘I’ll let you babysit my kid for a day because we trust you.’” They sent a fully storyboarded scene cut to the song, which also helped impress Radiohead into signing off. From there, the door was open to getting other artists like Mumford and Sons, Rod Stewart, Biz Markie, and more. Gutiérrez laughs “Anybody who was on the fence after that, it was like, ‘Oh, so you think you’re better than Radiohead?’”
Furthering the quirkiness of the film, the animation is a lush visual assault inspired by traditional Mexican wooden toys and fairytale magic, with vibrant colors and tiny details filling every inch of the screen. The cast of voices is wonderfully diverse, with turns from Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Ron Pearlman, Ice Cube, and of course, Mr. Trejo. Though all three men have kids, I was particularly interested in asking Trejo about raising children, as most of his film work includes him drenched in other people’s blood. “I wrote a book on parenting. Every page is blank. Just love them. I tell them stay out of trouble and I’ve got your back.” I laughed but pressed a little further at what age he exposed them to his violent films. He remarked “My kids know fake blood and real blood; they know the difference between a movie and reality. It’s literally impossible to say that I’m going to shield my children from this because Timmy has the internet.” Santaolalla chimed in “The shield is the education, the values, the ethics that you give the kids. Cutting access doesn’t work, because they’ll find it.”
I immediately got the sense that though the three men across the table from me were wildly different personalities from one another, each of them is a ferociously loving Dad that wanted to create a film they could enjoy with their own kids. And they succeeded. Between the life lessons, music, and stunning visuals they’ve made a story that truly has something for the whole family. I recommend it for humans of any age to celebrate life, love, music, and be a little less scared of death.