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Day Of The Dead Comes To Life

In ”The Book of Life”, Manolo, a soulful young guitar player (voiced by Diego Luna), faces pressure from his father to honor the family tradition and become a bullfighter — so he embarks on a journey to three different spirit realms to find his true calling and prove himself to his beloved, Maria (Zoe Saldana). It all takes place on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico’s exuberant annual celebration of the dearly departed. Here, writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro guide us through one of the netherworlds, the Land of the Remembered, a fantastical and joyous place exploding with Mexican cultural references.

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1. Color, Por Favor
The entire film is bursting with color — an aesthetic choice inspired by the traditional Day of the Dead hues of red (symbolizing passion) and orange, for marigolds, the scent of which is believed to attract spirits.

2. Artisanal Touch
The animation evokes folk art. ”Everything looks like it was made from a block of wood or metal in a very handcrafted way,” says del Toro.

3. Let There Be Light
The Land of the Remembered glows with a warm light that recalls the candles placed on home altars or graves. ”The idea is that in the darkness, remembering someone will give you light,” says Gutierrez.

4. Mayan Ruins
These references to Mexico’s ancient past were ”a thrilling reminder of where I come from,” says Gutierrez, who grew up in Tijuana and visited the pyramids as a kid. ”I wanted to layer the movie so that with multiple viewings, you’ll catch little things left and right.”

5. Catholic Tradition
Day of the Dead has its roots in the indigenous Aztecs’ annual celebration of the deceased. Catholic Spanish colonists later combined that festival with their All Souls’ Day, and the film nods to that influence with the chapel seen here. ”That’s Mexico,” says Gutierrez, ”a blend of cultures.”

6. Not-So-Scary Skulls
In the U.S., skulls are a spooky symbol of death. Not so in Mexican culture, where they serve as a cheerful reminder of loved ones no longer with us. ”That’s why in the movie, most of the skulls are smiling,” notes the director, whose collection of Mexican folk art includes more than 1,000 skulls.

7. Paper Trail
Papel picado, banners made from colorful tissue paper that has been cut into elaborate designs, are a classic Mexican decoration for festive and cultural events. Del Toro has fond memories of such celebrations in his native Guadalajara, over which he and Gutierrez bonded. Says del Toro: ”We’re very similar filmmakers. We lead with our heart. There’s nothing cynical or postmodern about what we do.”

8. Novel Balloons
”I’ve never seen balloons during Day of the Dead,” says Gutierrez. ”But I liked the idea, that even down there in the Land of the Remembered, new things were happening.”

9. Guitars — Olé!
Mexican families customarily decorate graves and home altars with offerings — ofrendas — of their relatives’ favorite foods and possessions. ”If they played the guitar, you bring their guitar,” Gutierrez says.

10. Bridge to Beyond
Gutierrez illustrated a winding bridge as a tribute to his grandfather. ”One of the things he used to say often was ‘When you find stones on the road, don’t build a wall. Build bridges.”’


The Characters
These folks are also rich in symbolism

La Muerte (Kate del Castillo)
With her hat and dress trimmed in candles, the guardian spirit of the Land of the Remembered symbolizes the memory of the dead.

Xibalba (Ron Perlman)
The fearsome lord of the underworld is covered in more than 500 skulls, including those on his pupils.

Manolo (Diego Luna)
The mariachi’s ornate garb is inspired by the signature suits worn by Gutierrez’s favorite musicians: Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.