Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
For parents who value cultural diversity director/co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez’ brilliantly animated film comes as a wondrous gift. Set during the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the animators pattern their characters after the brightly painted wooden puppets and dolls associated with the celebration. This is a film that looks like no other animated film that I have seen for the past few years.
The story resembles some of the ancient journey into the underworld myths. Actually, a story within a story, the film begins with a busload of bored school children deposited at an American museum. Despite their reluctance to enjoy the experience, the museum’s curvaceous woman tour guide takes them inside where a huge exhibit of Mexican art and culture is being readied for the Day of the Dead display. She explains that the holiday is the time of the year when the spirits of the ancestors return so that the living can present them with gifts and remembrances. “What is it with Mexicans and death?” one kid asks—and soon finds out as the guide explains that there are two realms of the dead, the bright and colorful Land of the Remembered and the gray gloomy Land of the Forgotten.
Opening the large Book of Life, the guide reads the story of two Mexican boys who grow up in the same town loving the same girl. Manolo (Diego Luna) is the son of a bullfighter, but would prefer to a musician. Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is a decorated soldier, and Maria (Zoe Saldana) is the lovely but independent-minded maiden whom they woo.
The complicated plot involves a contest between the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, Santa Muerte (Kate de Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) of the Land of the Forgotten. The latter, tired of all the gloom, wants to exchange realms, so he bets that Joaquin will win the hand of Maria, and so the adventure unfolds, with Joaquin soon gaining the upper hand in defending the village from foes. Xibalba has secretly given Joaquin a medal that bestows courage and protection to its wearer.
During the story Manlo, who would rather play his guitar and sing than wield cape and sword, constantly has to resist his father who insists that he join the long line of bullfighters who have brought fame and honor to the family. However, when he does skillfully fight a large bull in the ring, he refuses to kill it, thus turning the crowd against him and shaming his father. Maria, meanwhile is also resisting her family who would prefer that she marry the brave soldier Joaquin. However when he lets slip that a girl is meant to please her man, she is turned off by his advances. The film really takes off when Manlo is tricked into entering the two lands of the dead, where for a while all seems lost for him.
Young and old will be dazzled by the brilliant colors of the animation, and adults, of course, will appreciate the feminist character of Maria. There is a wonderful moment of non-violence when Manlo is faced with a giant bull comprised of the spirits of all of the bulls slaughtered in the arena over the ages. Before him stand the matador’s sword and his guitar. The giant bull dwarfs him, reminding me of the confrontation between the girl and the Beast of the Southern Wild in the delightful film of that name. Manlo kneels and offers his apology for all of the blood shed by matadors through the ages. To everyone’s surprise this mollifies the beast.
I wish the film could have ended on such a high pacific note, but of course there has to be a climactic battle in the Land of the Living between ghostly bandits and the villagers, and the false hero with his magic medal has to be exposed and changed, and so forth. Unfortunately the violent climax undermines the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Manlo and the giant bull. (I am wondering what the reaction to this film will be in those Hispanic countries where bullfighting is popular!) The film has lessons for girls and boys, as well as serving as an introduction for many viewers to a popular Mexican celebration. The theme of remembering, lest the dead spirit be cast into The Land of the Forgotten, is an important theme throughout the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures. One character says of departed loved ones, “As long we remember them, they are with us.” Both the Passover and the Eucharist are ceremonies of remembrance.
Like our Halloween, The Day of the Dead connects with the traditional All Saints Day, and also is a blend of pagan and Christian customs and beliefs. And like so many so-called children’s films, this one is too good for an adult to just drop off the kids and go shopping.