The trailer for Disney’s new animated film, Coco, debuted yesterday. It’s based on the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (DDLM) and the experience of a little boy and his family. It’s a beautiful trailer but The Book of Life did it first, and it did it well. It was also unapologetically Mexican. So if you’re excited for Coco, here are some reasons why you REALLY REALLY REALLY need to watch The Book of Life. A 2014 animated film directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, produced by Guillermo Del Torro, and a score by Gustavo Santaolalla,the story follows a bullfighter who, on the Day of the Dead, embarks on an afterlife adventure to fulfill the expectations of his family and friends.
1. They didn’t try to copyright DDLM.
This could easily be all 10 things on this list. I keep seeing websites like Geeks of Color, share Coco without any mention of this. The film itself has been stuck in development hell because of this controversy, you can read about it here. (Disney and Coco deserve some credit for embracing their critics and offering the, spots on the film creation team, BUT Book of Life always had a Mexican/Latinx production team)
2. The Book of Life showcases the long history of DDLM in Mexico.
With the influences on the main characters being La Muerte and Xibalba (specifically Xibalba) they showcase the long tradition of the holiday in the indigenous religions of Mexico, as well as cultural creations (La Muerte is La Catrina). With the depiction of the worlds of the forgotten and the remembered, they add a spin to the cultural touch stone, with it’s indigenous heritage being highlighted more than the Catholic expressions the day took on after colonization by the Spanish.
3. The Book of Life is filled with Mexican & Latinx talent.
The Book of Life does have Ron Pearlman, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, and Christina Applegate in roles (without an all-Latinx cast, it can be a flaw). But when it comes to showcasing the Mexican experience and celebration of the holiday, the story-tellers of the film are all Latinx and their attention to detail make the story resonate with those of us who ave grown up with the tradition. They even make sure that those creating songs do so in a wat that honors the Mexican culture the story is set in, in order to bring it to life. By having Latinx authorities on the making of the film, they are able to create a story that is impactful and representative of Latinx life, even if the mouthpieces are not from that culture.
4. The score includes renditions of popular songs in a Tejano/Norteño style and showcases indie Latinx artists.
On of the main plot points of the film is the main character’s passion for music. As such, the production team worked to ensure that every song included in the movie had that Latinx touch. My favorite being the “I Will Wait” and “Creep” renditions. The closing song of the film was written and performed by Us The Duo, and it’s gold.
5. It tackles the machismo attitude in Mexican and other Latinx cultures.
At the heart of the film, the main character struggles against a long family history of matadors. He forgoes the violence, the killing, and – in the Sanchez family’s eyes – the strength of bullfighting. He chooses music and love instead. Offering a different take on the hypermasculine Latinx man, often idealized in our culture. While also critiquing machismo expectations, the way the movie develops the side characters that embody this idea are given stories that prove softness and strength are not mutually exclusive.
6. It is a great teaching tool for those outside of the Mexican-American communities, not aware of the significance of DDLM.
I’ve used this film and it’s themes to teach college students about the celebration of the dead in Mexico, and those of Mexican heritage in the US. The film itself takes place as a lesson given to a group of predominantly white elementary schools kid who visit a museum and go to a mysterious back room. As a storybook, it is accessible to younger audiences and easily explains the importance and celebration of death within Mexican culture. We remember our dead, we celebrate them, and we do not fear them.
I can keep writing, but these six reasons are why I love the film so much. I have recommended it to parents looking to teach their childrean about DDLM, especially for those outside of the culture. It is a powerful tale that shows the important of family, while also encouraging a community often constrained by familial expectations to take a leap of faith and pursue their dreams. The songs are great, and I as I said in the beginning, it is unapologetically Mexican. It is a story from the community, for the community. So before you watch Coco, with all its controversy, watch The Book of Life.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.