All Saints Day, in the Catholic tradition, is when those who are officially declared “saints” by a sitting pope are all honored at once. It’s a traditional “holy day of obligation,” meaning the faithful believers are supposed to attend Mass that day (November 1st). Not surprisingly, it also became a day when people remembered their loved ones who have departed, though it’s unlikely that Rome officially declared them as “saints.”
Also not surprisingly, there quickly arose a counter-tradition on October 31st, or All Hallowed Eve, shortened to Halloween, when the evil spirits were free to roam the earth before they had to return to wherever they came from when the spirits of the saints were collectively invoked the next day. As we all know, our eclectic American culture has embraced the witches, goblins, demons, ghosts and skeletons as a children’s trick-or-treat costume occasion, with virtually no religious significance remaining at all.
In Mexico, “the center of the earth,” according to this delightful little animated film, is November 2nd when families remember their departed loved ones by holding commemorations at their graveside and lighting candles to their memories. The spirits of those who are still remembered can then live happily in The Place of Remembrance where the departed carry on in constant colorful fiesta. But those who are no longer remembered on earth are consigned to the Place of Forgetfulness, a dark, shadowy underworld without joy or celebration (actually something akin to the biblical Hebrew concept of Sheol). The Place of Remembrance is presided over by the Good Queen, La Muerte (the voice of Kate del Castillo). The Place of Forgetfulness has the Evil King, Xibalba (the voice of Ron Perlman), who’s unhappy there and wants to trade realms with La Muerte who will listen to him… because he’s her eternal husband? And because he wants to make a wager with her and she can’t resist a good bet?
The wager centers around three children in a small village: Manolo (the voice of Diego Luna), Joaquin (the voice of Channing Tatum) and Maria (the voice of Zoe Saldana). Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with Maria, but her father sends her off to get a private education. La Muerte is betting that she eventually winds up marrying Manolo, who comes from a family of bullfighters, but he just wants to sing and play his guitar. Xibalba is betting that Maria chooses Joaquin, because he is strong and brave and promises to protect her. Of course, Xibalba cheats by giving Joaquin a stolen green badge of immortality, which makes Joaquin pretty formidable in battle. Naturally, he earns the reputation as a fierce warrior, but he’s actually become a self-involved egotist, despite professing his love for Maria.
This colorful tale is told by a museum curator named Mary Beth (the voice of Christina Applegate), to a gathering of small children who become completely enthralled with her “Book of Life,” from which these stories come. Then, at the end, she encourages them to go live their own story.
Though “The Book of Life” sounds complicated and somewhat dark, the basic love triangle gives it a plot center. We get to have fun with cutesy songs and humorous backup choruses and all manner of animated playfulness. Some of the “bogeymen” may be intense for very small children (there were some little criers in my theater), but overall, a cross-cultural delight for any age.
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.