Mexican Culture in Animated Translation

The Book of Life
Director: Jorge Gutiérrez
Studio: Reel FX/20th Century Fox
Mexico/United States, 2014

Review by Martin Boyd

In a previous review for this Forum, I’ve already made mention of the dearth of Mexican family films for those parents who want their children exposed to Mexican culture and to break the Disney monotony that young viewers are subjected to almost daily. Indeed, the Hollywood monopoly on movie production for children is so severe that we are left with no other option than to search for representations of Mexican culture in US cinema itself. Notable among the few positive representations of Mexico in Hollywood cinema is The Book of Life, an animated film by Mexican director Jorge Gutiérrez, produced with the support of Guillermo del Toro, one of the most prominent Mexican filmmakers of recent years.

The Book of Life deals with the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) through the prism of a love story set in a traditional Mexican town. Specifically, it tells the story of two friends, Manolo and Joaquín, who compete for the love of Maria, their mutual childhood friend. Unbeknownst to the young men, their battle for Maria is the object of a bet between two spirits: La Catrina (the symbol of death in Mexican culture); and Xibalba (basically an invention of the film, although his name is taken from the name of the Underworld in Mayan mythology). Each spirit will take the side of one of the young men, influencing the destiny of their chosen candidate to help him win their bet, and Maria’s heart.

Beyond its Mexican subject matter, this film explores the universal theme of the tension between tradition and individual free will, a theme embodied in the character of Manolo, who is faced with the dilemma of either following in the family tradition of bullfighting in accordance with his father’s expectations or pursuing his passion for music. It is a dilemma that will be resolved in the world of the dead, where Manolo will go in search of his beloved María after she falls victim to a fatal snake bite.

Ultimately, the plot of this film revolves around a rather typical romance, a love triangle resolved predictably with the inevitable “happy ending”. Unlike Zurdo, another children’s film with a Mexican theme, The Book of Life contains nothing too dark or frightening for younger viewers, despite the theme of death that underpins the story. In fact, the film offers an excellent introduction for children to the tradition of the Day of the Dead, with a very clear expression of the act of homage to the dearly departed that underlies that tradition, which distinguishes it so dramatically from the terror of death at the heart of the North American celebration of Halloween.

Nevertheless, it becomes obvious while watching The Book of Life that its purpose of teaching children about the Day of the Dead is not aimed at Mexican children, and it is in this respect that the film sometimes falls into the trap of presenting a kind of post card version of Mexican culture for the enjoyment of a foreign audience, instead of what could have been a celebration of Mexican culture for Mexicans themselves. In terms of the story, the most obvious evidence of this tendency is the presence of the bandido “Chakal”, the villain who threatens the little town of San Angel, who constitutes a rather offensive stereotype of the “Mexican bad hombre” taken directly out of the American Western movie tradition.

The animation style also tends to represent the characters with excessively Hollywood-esque touches: for example, a figure of Mexican culture as iconic as La Catrina appears here as a caricature that owes more to Tim Burton than to José Guadalupe Posada. But perhaps the most unpleasant of all the hints of cultural imperialism in the film is the inclusion of several popular songs in English, such as Radiohead’s “Creep” or “I Will Wait” by Mumford & Sons, songs that sound pretty incongruous coming out of the mouth of a Mexican troubadour. These intrusions of English in the middle of the Spanish dialogue effectively beat the viewer over the head with the sad truth that this “Mexican” film is, in reality, a gringo film. Given its Mexican theme and director, the decision to produce The Book of Life in English and then dub it into Spanish, instead of the other way around, provokes a sensation just as unsettling as listening to Frida Kahlo “speaking perfect English with a Spanish accent.”

These concerns aside, what Jorge Gutiérrez has achieved with this film should not be undervalued, as the mere fact of producing a commercial Hollywood film with a Mexican theme without succumbing (too much) to the worst gringo stereotypes of Mexico is something that we should celebrate and applaud. And in spite of its obvious efforts to pander to an “international” (i.e., US) audience, The Book of Life at least presents a positive image of Mexican culture that few children’s films made in Mexico manage to offer.

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