Spoilers here. Fair warning.
So I just saw Jorge Gutierrez's animated fantasy, The Book of Life. I'd been meaning to catch it for some time, and sure enough, there was a lot to like. Visually it's a feast for the eyes, and most of the main characters were well crafted, with complex motivations and difficult choices presented in a fashion which was easy to digest. The Mexican aesthetic was gorgeously charming, and it makes me wonder (not for the first time) why the Day of the Dead hasn't gained more popularity here in the States. From what I can tell it's an absolutely kickass holiday, with the potential to compliment Halloween in wonderful ways. But here's what gets me...
Has anyone else noticed how utterly nihilistic this film is?
No, think about it. In the cosmology presented here, the afterlife consists of two primary realms; the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten. The former is basically Heaven, the latter a de facto Hell. People exist as stylized skeletons in either case, which I have no problem with since it's a sweet look, which is why my favorite Saints Row avatar is decked out in skull makeup. She would've been completely bitching with angel wings, which I always, always wanted as a customization option, but Volition decided to crap out by making Gat Out of Hell an overstuffed expansion instead of the full-blown sequel it deserved to be, but that's another whole rant, isn't it? Put a pin in that, we'll get to it later.
Now, these two worlds differ from other traditional interpretations of the hereafter in that the departed are not, apparently, divided by virtue of their... well, virtues. This isn't strictly a case of the good being rewarded and the evil being punished. Rather, the blessed souls allowed to party in the Land of the Remembered are, as the name implies, simply remembered by those still living on Earth. This attaches even greater significance to the observance of the Day of the Dead, for without remembrance they are condemned to a dismal underworld.
We follow the plight of an aspiring musician and reluctant bullfighter named Manolo Sanchez who finds himself the victim of a Faustian bargain which sends him to the Other Side. He wrestles with issues of honor, conscience, and familial obligation as he meets his ancestors (though only those who bear the name of Sanchez... I couldn't help but notice that in spite of the strong female characters and an atmosphere acknowledging the absurdity of old-fashioned misogynistic gender norms, his mother's side of the family is entirely ignored). The reunions are short lived as he sets out to save his skin.
Like Dante, our hero tours the various strata of existence. He sees firsthand the plight of those who have simply been lost to history. Unfortunately, despite acknowledging their suffering, there isn't any move made to help them... which, come to think of it, is a plot hole common to many religions. How can those in Heaven be happy knowing that while they kick back on a cloud someone less deserving is drowning in torment? As is often the case, this isn't directly addressed... the protagonists are concerned only with their own salvation. The damned can't be helped. All the good guys can do is work to stave off their own descent.
A descent which, let's face it, seems fairly inevitable. Because aren't we all forgotten eventually? However beloved we are, however much we carve our name into history, time ultimately wears our names off of every page. Of course, the dead presumably remember one another, being constantly in their own company, but they don't seem to count in this movie... all that keeps them in the "VIP Club" is their presence in the minds of the living, and that's a tenuous thing indeed. As an army of bandits descends on the town around which the events of this tale spin, the associated Remembered fret over the fact that with their ancestral village destroyed they will be cast into the dungeon of neglected souls.
My God. Imagine someone telling you that the only things keeping your dead mother's spirit out of Hell are your thoughts of her. Imagine that you're in the same boat, and that's bad news because you don't have many friends or living relatives. Imagine the pressure. Even once you arrive in the magical supernatural theme park you've got to know that your days are numbered. Sooner or later, you WILL have to report to the gulag.
I mean, this gets worse the more you think about it... the "eternal fiesta" of the Land of the Remembered seems almost like a cruelty. Most of the groaning zombies we see in the Land of the Forgotten must have initially been in the good place first, right? Someone had to remember them for a while after they died. Unless they were in the wilderness or something, every one of them was granted a fantastic party for a while before being flushed down the cosmic drain to endure a dismal limbo until their very essence turns to dust. Good people, bad people, all just helpless zombies staring vacantly at nothing while the ghosts in vogue live it up in a colorful paradise. Before it's their turn, that is.
And let's not forget, this surely means that many of the festive dead must have seen their fellow phantoms fall from grace right next to them. How many times has a skeleton been enjoying their day when a loved one's bony hand slipped from theirs? Someone they may have had reason to remember dearly? Time's up, and suddenly your drinking buddy for the last hundred years is banished to the black hole. But maybe you'll see them again when your time comes. As if dying the first time wasn't bad enough... I'm starting to think the Remembered only party so hard to distract themselves from a constant state of dread! Or maybe they truly don't care, either about themselves or those around them, which is a disturbing notion in its own right.
Why does the villain, Xibalba, want to abandon the Land of the Forgotten? Sure it's a dump, but he's basically king of the universe. All he has to do is wait, and every one of those smug mortals will be right there with him. Misery loves company, right?
Conversely, why is La Muerte, his saintly counterpart, so content with this arrangement? If she's as compassionate an overseer as she seems, does her heart not break to know that so many of those who laughed and cheered in her paradise are stuck in the basement dreaming of the good old days? Does she send them a post card every now and then? Bring them a care package? She seemed pretty chummy with the good guys in the scenes during which they interacted. Makes her look pretty damn superficial if her friendship is contingent on how popular you are.
As the plot unfolds she briefly gains Xibalba's throne. But what does that mean? What power over the place does that grant her? Apparently not much, since so far as we can see she doesn't lift a finger to make it any nicer for the spiritually destitute masses. Who made the rule that the lower classes couldn't be allowed any luxury whatsoever? Cripes, talk about a class divide!
And, again, this doesn't have much to do with moral success or failure. The leader of the bandits winds up biting the dust in the climactic final battle with the resurrected Manolo and his friends (including the dead ones, since the Day of the Dead grants them special powers, though I have to wonder why, if the blessed deceased can pop up on Earth, the abandoned are still stuck in the pits). So what happens to this terrible chieftain? He's not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. In fact he was quite notorious. Does he get to chill for the next couple of centuries in Happy Land, or what?
Everything ends on an "up" note, Manolo keeps his mortal coil, gets the girl, reconciles with the other antagonists, and everyone cheers. But I couldn't quite share the mood. How come no one gives a crap about the wraiths? Bad enough they've been forgotten. Even the people who've stared the sorry bastards in the face can't be bothered to care about them.
I just can't feel like it's a happy ending when it promises doom on the horizon. And what's worse, it seems like the sort of doom that could probably be dealt with if the people involved would just put their heads together! Come on, spruce Tartarus up a bit, build a gazebo down there, send some of that food that's overflowing over the heavenly banquet table, hang up some streamers... share the wealth, you fondly remembered yuppies! We mortals often take the time to try and help our less fortunate neighbors. Why can't the dead? Why are they so blase about a continuing holocaust in their midst? Is it that easy to turn a blind eye with bright lights and song?
It's like there's a whole other moral to this story that just never got hatched. A very compelling tale could arise from the setting of a society of spirits complacent and content to indulge in the decadence which the Universe has seen fit to grant them. How important is it for a people to open their eyes and help those less fortunate... for in noticing these sad souls, they behold not only old friends and relations, but their own possible future as the worm turns?
There are a lot of lessons in there. Maybe Manolo left the underworld too soon. It's no small irony that the Remembered might need to be reminded of a few things.
At the very least, I'd expect more closure in a movie about death.