Saturday Morning Cartoon: ‘The Book of Life’ Director Jorge Gutierrez’s Charmingly Morbid Debut…

By  · Published on October 25th, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoon: ‘The Book of Life’ Director Jorge Gutierrez’s Charmingly Morbid Debut Short

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Jorge R. Gutierrez, as it turns out, has something of an artistic fascination with death. His first feature film, The Book of Life, opened last weekend. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a love story that crosses into the afterlife and builds upon the aesthetic and spiritual traditions of Dia de los Muertos. Death comes early on in the film, when Manolo (Diego Luna) is bitten by a venomous snake and sent into the next world. To regain the love of his life, Maria (Zoe Saldana), he has to find a way to come back from the beyond. It may not be the only recent animated feature for kids to address death, after Paranorman and others, but its embrace of such a morbid narrative is an exciting risk.

For Gutierrez, however, this is nothing new. His final film as a student at CalArts in 2000 was a 3D short called Carmelo. It won an Emmy for student animation and played at a number of festivals. He has since mostly worked in television, for Nickelodeon, Disney, and Warner Bros. He created the 2007 Nickelodeon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, which was that network’s first ever flash animation series. The project won a number of Emmys, as well as two Annie Awards. These three most significant projects, Carmelo, El Tigre and now The Book of Life all draw from Gutierrez’s childhood and his heritage in Mexico.

Of those, Carmelo and The Book of Life have the most in common. The short is so much about death that it begins in a cemetery, where a family have gathered to bury their recently deceased son. Carmelo, whose tombstone reads 1968 to 1975, is survived by his parents, his sister and a particularly inquisitive bird lurking above the graves. As this feathered creature moves in to inspect the memorial picture of the young boy, Gutierrez flashes back to when Carmelo was still alive. Excitable and thriving, we see the boy’s mother reading him a story about a gallant and triumphant toreador, who turns out to be his father. The youngster is enthralled by the thought of bullfighting. Yet his father enters the room and says absolutely not, presumably because it is much too dangerous.

Carmelo does it anyway, in the dead of night. It’s clear enough how that ends, of course. What sets Carmelo apart is the way that death is presented. It is not masked or hidden, in the manner of so many children’s films. Gutierrez presents it directly and immediately. On the other hand, it is not taken entirely seriously. That may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. Death is intimidating in its own right, it doesn’t need the added emphasis of the filmmaker to trouble the viewer. Instead, it can be balanced out by a wry sense of humor. Carmelo is delightfully morbid but not the least bit morose.

The rich, almost overwhelming aesthetics help out a great deal as well. Like The Book of Life, Carmelo is an example of remarkably detailed computer animation. Taking his cue from the ornate and bold style of Dia de los Muertos, Gutierrez fills the screen with bright colors and eccentric shapes, including a number of skeletons. What the earlier short does not have in common with the new feature is its technology. Computer animation has changed a great deal in the last decade and a half, to the point that an older film can seem alien and impossibly primitive. What is then perhaps most impressive about Carmelo is how Gutierrez’s style rings through to The Book of Life even past the many, many technical improvements that have occured in the industry. This underlines how animators are artists as well as artisans, aided by the tools but hardly determined by them.

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