Just yesterday I was doing a news update on Guillermo del Toro’s potentially upcoming Haunted Mansion and found myself marveling at the amount of projects he has in the pipeline, either as a director or producer. And, as I was listing them off, I totally forgot to include The Book of Life. That won’t be a problem now since I just got back from a footage presentation (along with a Q&A with del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez) on the Fox Lot. This movie is now on my radar in a major way. Normally I’m not into footage presentations but this one was far enough ahead of release to get behind. It was also largely fantastic, priming me for the full experience in October.
The Book Of Life revolves around three childhood friends—Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum)—who find themselves in a love triangle as the gods wager on who will win Maria’s heart. Manolo is the central character of the story, as he dreams of breaking his family tradition of bullfighting to become a guitar player. Over the course of the fantastical story, audiences are taken to The Land of the Living, the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten as Manolo seeks to live a complete and fulfilling life that is remembered by the living. Hit the jump to for more on The Book of Life footage presentation. The film also features the voices of Hector Elizondo, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Danny Trejo, Ice Cube, and Placido Domingo. If you haven’t seen the trailer you can fix that here. The Book of Life opens in 3D on October 17th.
The presentation started out charmingly enough with del Toro remarking that the whole project got rolling when Gutierrez showed up to his house with a lot of tequila and some concept images for the film. Del Toro was initially hesitant to add another project to his already very busy roster, but Gutierrez’s concept art and general tenaciousness won him over. I can totally see this, since Gutierrez’s passion for the project was pleasantly and totally infectious every time he spoke about the film. After a quick intro from Gutierrez the footage rolled, pausing every now and then to allow the director to set up the next clip.
I should note that I went into this presentation totally blind. I hadn’t seen a trailer for the film, nor had I been exposed to any images from it. And I’m glad that’s the way it transpired because it’s the closest I’ve come in a while to actually seeing an entire movie without being over saturated by marketing beforehand.
Of course, the really story is how fantastic The Book of Life looks. Del Toro would later speak about how he really wanted to get away from “that look”, meaning the standard cinematic aesthetic of almost every Pixar and Disney Animation film out there (not a slam, those can be some gorgeous movies in their own right, but they do feel a bit “unified”). They definitely succeeded. While The Book of Life certainly looks polished and is just as visually striking as those films, it has a handmade charm that really does evoke authentic Mexican folk art.
Del Toro and Gutierrez spoke at length about how they wanted the film to feel like a giant meal, a dish where you truly get a sampling of Mexican culture. While I’m not qualified to speak to the authenticity of the results in an objective sense, the world onscreen was vibrant and colorful and animated the culture’s popular tropes (and some lesser known elements) in a way that seemed to avoid cliché.
The central love triangle is, by all appearances, handled deftly and with a great deal of warmth (with the vocal talents of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum helping thing pop just a little more). I especially liked how capable and independent Saldana’s Maria seemed. Even though both Manolo and Joaquin are very much vying for her affections, it’s clear that she doesn’t “need” a man to achieve her sense of self. It also appears that, structurally speaking, the film cycles though several unique worlds and aesthetics throughout its three acts. For instance, the vibrant, almost neon, image you see on the film’s poster is from The Land of the Remembered. There’s also The Land of the Forgotten which is downright gothic in foggy atmosphere.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the use of music. During one portion of the footage I recognized a familiar tune that I couldn’t quite peg that eventually revealed itself to be a south-of-the-border take on Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait.” I’m not really a fan of that song, but I liked how the film recontextualized something so inherently anglo and made it its own. One song that I am a fan of – and that I was sort of stunned to hear because of the difficulty involved in licensing it – was Radiohead’s “Creep.” The version in the film is brief, but it’s actually kind of a fun, powerful moment to see an animated Diego Luna belting it out in the middle of an empty bullfighting arena with a classical guitar during what appears to be his first act low point. Gutierrez laughed about the songs’ inclusion, telling us that both he and Fox considered it an impossibility but that Radiohead wound up liking the script. After that one piece of music was secured, it became easier to get the other numbers in line (including pieces by Biz Markie and Rod Stewart).
I’d say we got a good look at anywhere between 20 and 30 minutes of footage and I really dug the flavor. During the Q&A after the screening, del Toro commented on the film’s unique look with a quote I think summed up the experience nicely:
“Hitchcock used to say, ‘if you want to be universal, be specific.’ In other words, movies that just happen in ‘Anytown, USA’ do not have the feedback from the earth and places they are made, they are less universal in my opinion. It’s almost like Bertolucci worrying about The Last Emperor only playing in China. It won’t. It’s like Sergio Leone worrying that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly will only play in the desert. You need to think in terms of food, I always think in terms of food. If you want Chinese, you go to a Chinese restaurant. When you want Japanese Sushi, you go to one of those restaurants and everyone enjoys how different the flavor is. And storytelling needs the same diversity. The world is not one flavor… ultimately the final flavor of your movie needs to have a specificity. Just as the food, the feel and the music of Mexico appeals to everyone.”
I’m definitely looking forward to getting a bigger taste of it this fall.