1. For Guillermo del Toro, working on the Día de los Muertos–inspired animated feature The Book of Life was a chance to give a nod to the compelling imagery that surrounds the Mexican celebration, while also telling a story with mass appeal.
“You see these colors, this beauty, this magical power that Mexican art has, and the eclecticism of the culture is so strong,” the Mexican-born filmmaker told BuzzFeed at the ATX Television Festival about the stunning visuals in the upcoming 3D animated feature scheduled for release this Halloween.
3. The Book of Life follows a love triangle involving three lifelong friends — Maria (Zoe Saldana), Manolo (Diego Luna), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum).
4. The trio gets caught up in a wager by a pair of meddling gods voiced by del Toro favorite Ron Perlman and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.
5. When Perlman’s character, Xibalba, mistakenly bets on Joaquin to win over Maria’s heart, he sends a two-headed snake to eliminate the competition.
6. A deadly bite sends the guitar-playing, bullfighting Manolo from the Land of the Living through two intricately fantastical worlds on an epic quest to reunite with his love.
8. “We called it The Book of Life because, for me, the movie is about life and joy and memory, and honoring memory, and knowing you can live forever when you have somebody that loves, and loved, you,” del Toro said.
“It’s a great, beautiful, powerful fairy tale,” he said.
Del Toro produced the movie with first-time director Jorge R. Gutierrez, who created the animated TV series El Tigre, about a teenage Mexican superhero.
Gutierrez first approached del Toro with the conceptual artwork and a “very different storyline” about six years ago, del Toro said, and they pitched the idea around before it was picked up by 20th Century Fox and Reel FX.
11. “It took a while to find financiers,” del Toro said. “We were very obscure. But I think Jorge is such a good director, and the world we have created is so beautiful, that eventually people went, ‘We want to do this.’”
“It’s the same with the audience,” he added.
12. The studios’ willingness to take on a feature with Día de los Muertos as a backdrop may also have something to do with the growing influence of Latinos in the American cultural landscape.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, and are projected to reach 56 million by 2030. They are also a key audience for Hollywood, since studies show they go to the movies more often and in larger groups than the general population.
13. At the very least, the movie is bound to appeal to generations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
While they may or may not have a close connection to the Día de los Muertos, they nevertheless could see the movie as a significant and historically uncommon reference to their culture in mainstream film.
Del Toro, who has worked on projects with other Mexican directors like Alfonso Cuaron, said sharing stories from his own culture is an important part of being a Mexican-American director in Hollywood, as long it is done in a natural way.
15. “You need to have very deep roots with your country, but you don’t have to be tied to it, thematically, forever,” del Toro said.
“I feel that we owe ourselves both the right to not do it and to embrace the beauty to do it when you can.”
Del Toro, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, said he personally has fond childhood memories of going to the cemetery for Día de los Muertos with his grandmother to tend to his grandfather’s grave.
17. “She would bring a little bit of bread, and we would sit and reminisce and talk,” he said.
“Then you would go to the open market, the Day of the Dead market, and we used to buy candy skulls, toys, and I loved it as a kid.”
But the movie also employs some of the familiar devices, such as seemingly unlikely pop culture references (a trailer release last month includes a rendition Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”), that have characterized the most successful animated features of the past couple decades and are likely to attract a more general crowd.
The cast also features well-known Hollywood names such as Ice Cube, Danny Trejo, and Christina Applegate.
20. It’s an opportunity to expose new audiences to a different concept of honoring the dead, del Toro said.
21. “In Mexican culture, we’re genetically engineered to not have the contemplation of death as a tragic end but a continuation — as a companion of life,” he said.
“You understand that it’s two sides of the same coin.”
22. “The essence of death is to remind you to live, that’s why we are not solemn or serious,” he added.
23. “We dance, we sing, we party with the concept and celebrate the concept because, right now, we’re here. It’s the power of ‘now,’ Mexican style!”
Jarett Wieselman contributed reporting to this story.