It’s Oscar season, and as an animator, Pixar’s Coco is almost a shoe-in to be the Best Animated Film (although the looming shadow of Boss Baby might just steal…lololol).
However, as an avid fan of all things animated, I was very happy with this movie when it came out in 2014 as The Book of Life, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge Gutierrez. Ok, so not really, these aren’t actually the same movie. But the similarities have made a lot of people wonder.
The Book of Life was a good and quirky film. Plus: it was great to see an animated film with an Hispanic director and producer get a big budget and a major studio behind it. It became an underground hit, even though it wasn't a box office slam. In fact, it’s theatrical gross just barely covered the cost to make it in the US. In the end, it became more of a home video hit. So much so that when Pixar announced they were making a “Day of the Dead” movie, everyone instantly started to make comparisons.
If you look online for movie reviews for Pixar’s Coco, they are overwhelmingly positive. However, the majority of the negative reviews draw parallels to The Book of Life. These reviews chastise Pixar, suggesting they had no business producing a similarly-themed film 3 years later. These are lazy reviews. And those critics clearly haven’t watched The Book of Life recently. Well, I happen to own a copy and decided to watch it and compare for myself.
Before we begin…
The Book of Life had a budget of around $50 million, while Coco has one upwards of $200 million. It's not fair for me to compare these films directly considering the studios, the budgets, and the 3 year time difference. So instead, I'll eschew technical comparisons for ones considering the writing, the music, the visuals, and the characters. If compared them directly, there's really no contest. Coco is the clear winner when it comes to the quality of the rendering. Moreover, I'll also discuss the way the culture is used in both films, as well as their many strange similarities, however questionable they may seem.
Coincidental Rush Job
Conceptually, The Book of Life uses the Mexican cultural holiday of The Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) to both kill and revive a character. It is really little more than a deus ex machina plot device by the end of the story. They establish the existence of the celebration at the beginning, but then it recedes to inconsequence. That is, until our recently killed hero, Manolo, passes a test of purity. All of a sudden we're hit with the news that it's the Day of the Dead again.
This gives way to a ton of coincidences. Coincidentally, this was also the day Manolo died; as well as the day his rival, Joaquin, and his love interest, Maria, are to be married; and, by pure chance, it's also the day the villain, Chakal, attacks the village. This string of coincidences rush the story along a little too quickly and confusingly. Did they even bury Manolo before they got married? How long did they wait? Why couldn’t Joaquin protect the village without first marrying Maria?
Coincidences aside, the story is easy to follow and doesn't lag anywhere. Although at times it does rush along a little too fast. Despite all this, the deaths of the characters, the big fight at the end, and even the hero’s redemption lacked any real strong emotional impact. Do we care that Manolo’s father and grandmother die? Not really, we kind of forget it happened. The characters surely don’t seem to care.
Well-Paced Fun Times
On the other hand, Coco focused on the Day of the Dead as a major plot point. Most of the story takes place that night, and it's explained to the audience in a very non-condescending way what exactly it is and how it works. Throughout the film, the characters race to beat the clock and get Miguel back to the land of the living before the Day of the Dead ends. It's a constant driving point, which neither rushes the story nor allows it to drag. When Miguel decides to find his great great-grandfather for a blessing, he does so knowing time's already running out. He can’t stand the limitations his family forces on him, so he tries something else. He gets help, he forms a plan, and he follows through.
At no point did I ask myself “why didn’t Miguel do this instead?” or “what exactly happened?”. Instead, the story was easy to follow, with excellent timing. There are appropriate slow moments, = some funny and exciting ones, and moments where the plot pleasantly throws you for a loop. The plot actually involved very heavy themes. While Manolo in The Book of Life was killed by a snake bite, it was from a strange mythical demonic-like character. When one of the major characters in Coco is murdered, he is poisoned by his best friend. The impact is much stronger.
Briefly, The Book of Life was written to appeal to an American audience. The culture seemed to only serve as a backdrop. The plot wasn’t anything particularly amazing, and the ending was predictable. There were tons of deus ex machina moments in the film. From the Day of the Dead allowing the mythical characters to “bend the rules,” to the medal Joaquin wears, to the “Apology Song” destroying the monster. That isn’t to say the writing was horrible. It was fine! For one, there were no glaring mistakes in the plot. Plus, there were excuses for most of these elements, and the events had a logical flow. But timing-wise it was weak. I have no idea how much time passed since Manolo died until the end of the film. It all looks like one day, but it could have been several.
Coco, on the other hand, didn’t rely on deus ex machina to drive the story. The Day of the Dead was an essential theme throughout, along with music and family. The closest I could come up with to a deus ex machina were the spirit animals, but even they had a rhyme and reason to them. It was completely believable to me.
There really is too much to compare here for a short article. However, I will do my best. The characters from The Book of Life were relatively typical. You had the romantic hero with a literally pure heart (thanks to a magical plot device), a dashing jock that has too much confidence and egotism to be believable (again thanks to a magical plot device), and a rebellious young lady who is the Mary Jane of the film. She is educated, beautiful, refined, and trained in both sword fighting and martial arts. In short: she has no flaws whatsoever. She is even willing to marry someone she doesn’t love to protect her village. I would give these characters a B-, pretty typical and nothing special.
In Coco, you have the young boy discovering his place in the world. He secretly loves music despite his family’s hatred of it. He is the driving force of the movie and has wonderful personality quirks (such as his dimple trick) and flaws (such as his rebellious attitude against his family).
Then, you also have Hector, the deceased man who's desperate to see his daughter again. Hector needs to get his picture in a family shrine or else he'll officially be forgotten by everyone in his family. He struggles to help Miguel, hoping it'll lead to seeing his daughter. But along the way, he discovers the truth about his own past that he never known otherwise. He grows and develops, and is fun and silly as well as deep and often conflicted.
Finally, you have Ernesto de la Cruz. In life, Ernesto was a confident, beloved musician, and in death his reputation and adoration make him hard to find. While he seems like the perfect man, you eventually learn his secret, and it becomes a major driving point to the plot. I would give these characters an A+ for their complexity and their intricate relations. No magical devices needed to make them interesting characters.
Playing Out of Tune
The music in The Book of Life has bugged me for a long time. While it's an important character attribute and a minor plot point, the music just didn’t feel right. To put it succinctly, the musicians were more concerned with performing covers of pop songs than producing original music. These covers felt forced to me, trying too hard to appeal to a mass audience. The “Apology Song” may be an original, and it works well in the film, but ultimately it is an apology to a bull for killing it. And it starts with the word “Toro,” severely limiting its emotional impact. I can’t picture myself singing this song to anyone who isn’t of the bovine persuasion.
The only other original song I could find (correct me if I’m wrong) was “I Love You Too Much.” This is a fine song, with good lyrics and a tune. However, it's just a typical love song. And it's a little sappy, to say the least. Not that it wasn’t a good song. Unsurprisingly, the two original songs in The Book of Life are the only songs that actually fit the film's tone. Pretty much everything else was a cover, and as a result they were jarring.
Striking The Right Chords
In Coco, the songs fit. None of them felt like pop songs played by a mariachi band. That’s because all the songs were either original songs or covers of traditional Mexican songs. At no point did I cringe as the main character sang about being a “creep.” In fact, I had a hard time telling which songs were traditional ones because they all fit so well. The music was often produced with Spanish mixed into them, such as “Un Poco Loco,” or was entirely in Spanish, such as in “La Llorona.” In addition, the film was made with an entirely Spanish version, and those songs were all included on the soundtrack.
The signature song, “Remember Me” (“Recuerdame”), appears in 4 different takes throughout the film. And each time you get something different out of it. The first is the popular version sung as a classic song from back in the day, and it sounds like a man asking his lover to remember him. The second time you discover that it was written as a lullaby, and the song has a very different meaning. The final in-story version plays in the penultimate scene, and explaining any more would spoil the movie. But I can attest that the entire theater, including myself, was in tears during it. The last version is the modern day pop song which is fun because it includes both the Spanish and English versions in it sung as a duet.
Both The Book of Life and Coco have great visuals. In fact, some are rather similar. The scenery of both films features massive, tall, colorful, fantastical landscapes. Both have a strong theme with the yellow petals, as is culturally appropriate, and both have fantastic character designs.
In The Book of Life, the story is told to children on a field trip. As such, all the characters are wooden dolls, which allows for some fun visuals and gags, and gives them a unique feel I really liked. The characteristics of the wood became characteristics of the characters. Even the dead characters had fun carvings on them, and there are plenty of opportunities for epic shots.
Coco didn't do anything unusual in the style of the characters or world. However, their execution was exceptional, even exemplary. Most of this is due to the talent, technology, and budget they had. But it makes a difference. The City of the Remembered looks much grander and livelier and more colorful, and the skeletal character designs are well conceived and allow for fun gags. I would say Coco has the edge, but The Book of Life puts up a good fight for visuals, considering its limitations.
Both of these films handle Mexican culture very differently. The Book of Life doesn’t rely as much on culture as Coco does. However, when it goes to the cultural well, it relies tropes and stereotypes, such as matadors and luchadors. Coco doesn’t focus on these stereotypes as much. Rather, it explains everything the audiences needs to know in a way that isn't condescending. They present cultural ideas and traditions naturally and include some of their own ideas as well. It's a great way to underscore the importance of these traditions, including their Spanish names, without annoying audience members already familiar with them. Whereas Coco portrays the culture in a positive and fantastic light, The Book of Life glosses over it.
And it is no wonder Coco does a MUCH better job of presenting the traditions and cultures of Mexico: Pixar has done this before. During the production of Moana, Disney enlisted the help of Pacific Islanders. The creative team learned from them, talked with them, observed them, and integrated their findings into the film. Ultimately, this made Moana a culturally-accurate and engaging film. For Coco, Disney Pixar took it one step further. They brought in a team of cultural experts, including critics of theirs, in order to get it right. What better way to make something work than to bring in someone who thinks you’re doing it wrong?
And it wasn’t just the Day of the Dead, but the music and art and people of Mexico that they studied. There are so many tiny things that speak volumes about the efforts they made. Little things such as Miguel's grandmother throwing her shoe. The Book of Life lacked all of this.
Moreover, The Book of Life didn’t even use Hispanic actors for all the roles. Meanwhile, Coco found appropriate actors, which all sounded appropriate and could say the Spanish words properly. The Book of Life completely fails for me in regards to casting. While many of the cast are Hispanic and have accents, most of the main characters are not. They don’t sound like they fit, they have no accents and don’t pronounce any Spanish words.
Ok, now for some weird conspiracy level stuff. There are a lot of coincidences and similarities between these two films.
- Both of them have a strong focus on music, including protagonists who secretly yearn to be musicians. But not just any musician, a guitarist. Both have families that forbid and discourage their desire, which, of course, propels both films' plots.
- What's more, each movie has a character who's crushed beneath a bell and killed.
- Both films end with the protagonist in an arena of sorts.
- Music is the key plot device in both films, and a single song fixes their problems.
- Each film features characters whose driving motivation is not being forgotten.
- In The Book of Life, a major character dies from venom; in Coco, a major character dies from poison. Not much of a departure there.
- Coco and The Book of Life both have a big focus on family, particularly on dead ancestors.
- Both protagonists reject their family business.
- Both families have a pair of deceased twins who are side characters.
- The dead mother characters in both films look similar and have similar gray streaks in their hair.
With all these similarities, it begs to question: did Pixar plagiarize The Book of Life?
Well, after looking at the two films, I can say definitely not. Maybe team Coco got a few ideas or some inspiration from the earlier film, but its execution is very different. They don’t feel like the same film at all. In fact, they are very, very different movies.
The Book of Life is far more over-the-top with the themes, the magic, the characters, the styles. Which isn't a bad thing. In fact, it lends itself well to animation. What's more, it's primarily a love story, cut and dry.
On the other hand, Coco takes a more realistic approach, making the characters and situations more believable. Unlike it's predecessor, it's a movie about family.
These are both good films. The Book of Life is fun, fantastical, stylized, and enjoyable. However, it is a flawed film. Themes are overdone. The ending is mostly predictable. Cultural aspects are minimal, and often stereotyped. The timing is confusing, and the pacing rushed at times. Nonetheless, it was a fun movie.
But comparing it to Coco is unfair. Not only did Pixar have a huge budget, but the feel and concept are actually very different. There is no hero, no epic battle with a giant monster (or two), no gambling magicians, and no magical medals. In their place, we get a touching look at family, music, and acceptance. These characters struggle in real and complex ways. From a father who left his family, to a son who wants to be a musician, to a mother torn between love and long-lingering resentment.
Ultimately, Coco is just superior. The story is more solid. Music flows seamlessly, fits the film's mood, and is very catchy. The themes are universal and not overdone. Mexican culture is prevalent throughout the film and isn't presented negatively. Visually, it's beyond breathtaking. The characters are fun and flawed and conflicted. I won't say Coco is a perfect film, or even Pixar’s best. But it is up there as one of their top 5 films. If they borrowed from The Book of Life, they did an excellent job of making it their own and improving on those ideas.
Coco may be a better film, at least to me, but that doesn’t mean The Book of Life isn’t a great film too. Both are highly rated, and I like both. Remember that just because both films focus on the same holiday doesn’t mean you have to choose one over the other. I encourage you to see them both. And I encourage you to resist the urge to compare them. They are quite different, despite their similarities, and each deserves to be enjoyed for their own merits.