Guillermo del Toro’s fan base understands that the unique director will only work on projects that appeal to him on a personal level. There must be something incredibly unique about a project’s concept to catch the attention of a man whose level of creativity surpasses much of Hollywood. Luckily for up-and-coming director Jorge R. Gutierrez, he was able to entrance the visionary, convincing del Toro to help produce his new 20th Century Fox animated film Book of Life.
When Gutierrez graduated from CalArts, he knew it would be a while for him to break out as a filmmaker, but he never imagined it would take as long as it has to bring his passion project to the big screen. Thankfully, he had a dedicated producer on hand, Brad Booker, who helped Gutierrez continue to move forward with his vision.
A select group of reporters were given a first look at footage from Book of Life prior to its official unveiling at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego where fans can get their own extended look at the film prior to its October 17 release. The presentation began with del Toro and Gutierrez expressing what a incredible experience putting the animated feature together was for them. Though the filmmakers appeared as if they could talk about the project all day, they opted instead to let the audience sit back and watch footage from it.
At first glance, the movie appears to be a simple story about Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In some ways, that is correct, but there’s far more to the story, including a personal stake for the director. “It’s a cookbook of my family’s recipes, and they’re all in this movie,” Gutierrez explained. “Every single one, from my grandparents to my parents to what I want to see with my son. This is all based on the real things that have happened in my family — obviously, some of them are a little more embellished than others.”
The first clip screened takes place at the beginning of the film, where the movie’s de factor tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) introduces a group of eager kids to the Book of Life. She quickly runs down the cast of characters viewers will follow throughout the film, explaining the various planes of existence the characters will be immersed in at one point or another — the living world, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten.
The Land of the Remembered is essentially a perpetual Dia de los Muertos celebration, where various dead relatives from different centuries enjoy a non-stop party to their souls’ delight. Gutierrez and his team strived to bring the vibrant colors that appear prominently in Mexican culture to the film, focusing specifically on their application in its 3D presentation. “We wanted the 3D to be a character in this movie,” Gutierrez said. “We’re mastering the movie in 3D so that all the colors are just as vibrant and just as strong. When I would go to see these 3D movies, I would see these colors fade with the glasses, so we went pretty hardcore so that we don’t loose the pixel color.” The result is noticeable; when a key character ends up in the Land of the Remembered, the bright colors definitely make the stereoscopic effects more pronounced.
The main story follows the lives — and eventual afterlives — of two boys, Manolo and Joaquin, who vie for the affections of their female friend Maria. It all seems innocent and fun until the bored rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Forgotten take notice and decide to place a wager out of the love triangle, for no other reason than their own amusement. The sneaky and twisted spirit Xibalba (Ron Perlman) proposes that one boy will marry the girl, while La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) believes the other will ultimately win her heart. Not content to let the romance play out on its own, Xibalba has a couple tricks up his sleeve when the three become the proper age to marry.
The highly stylized visual aesthetic of Book of Life is reminiscent of Mexican culture, and while some may worry about its ability to connect with a broader audience, the Mexican-born director isn’t one of them. “It’s a really unique in a way that’s very authentic to Mexico and to Latin America, but it’s made for everyone,” Gutierrez said. Despite the origins of the film’s visuals, it’s the story that transcends barriers, which is one of the many things that attracted Guillermo del Toro to the project in the first place. “It is one of the journeys that we wanted to share and in the screenings that cuts across the borders, it cuts across the languages,” said del Toro.
After explaining the story’s broader appeal, the clips continued with a scene featuring the adult Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) not missing a beat and still fighting for Maria’s (Zoe Saldana) affections. Will she choose the decorated military man Joaquin, or the bullfighter Manolo, who ends up being bested by the animal when given the chance to prove his worth. When the entire town, including Manolo’s family, turns their backs on him, he expresses his anguish with an acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” believe it or not. Maria catches a glimpse of Manolo’s forlorn performance and is immediately smitten with him, much to the dismay of Xibalba.
Following one character’s impressive vocal performance, Gutierrez revealed Book of Life’s impressive voice cast, which features names familiar to both Spanish-language and English audience audiences including Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias and many others. More familiar voices pop up in the mariachi band that comes to Manolo’s aid as he tries his best to serenade the fair Maria. Before he’s able to swoop in and completely sweep Maria off her feet, Joaquin interjects and a fight breaks out between them.
As Manolo gets closer to winning Maria’s heat, the more furious Xibalba becomes about the possibility of losing his bet with La Muerte. The angry spirit tricks Manolo into entering the Land of the Remembered, and the film’s hero must band together with long-deceased relatives to return to the land of the living to be with his one true love, meeting the rulers of each plane he visits along the way. While the assembled journalists saw the clip featuring del Toro’s cameo in the Land of the Remembered, it’s best saved for moviegoers when they see Book of Life in October.
Once the video presentation was finished, Gutierrez, del Toro and producer Brad Booker spoke briefly about various aspects of the film. Gutierrez spoke about his inspiration to make all the characters look like wooden puppets, which harkens back to his childhood in Mexico. “There’s a long history of wooden characters in animation, all the way back to Pinocchio, this idea of animation giving life to an inanimate object,” said the director. “By having folk art be sort of the star aesthetic of the film, why not go with wooden marionettes.”
Returning to the subject of whether this film will appeal to more than just those who are already familiar with Dia de Los Muertos, del Toro was confident it will work for audiences from all backgrounds and all generations. “We wanted to create an adventure that is not only an action-adventure, but Jorge and I agreed that the new punk is emotion,” said del Toro. “We live in a world that is so cynical, and it is very risky to, in an earnest way, believe in emotion. In a sentence it sounds immediately corny and you are skeptical and cynical. What we wanted was to make it not only a journey to a world of fantasy, but to a world of family and love and emotion. It is extremely Mexican in that sense. It’s a movie that is very emotional and celebrates family and celebrates the idea of a family — getting in touch with who you are and what you are without any shame. I think these are journeys that are worth it because they’re not just following the three-act structure of an action-adventure that is kinetic but ultimately can be sterile. It’s really an emotional journey for families and kids to experience.”
Book of Life opens October 17, 2014.