A busload of children assigned to detention arrives at a history museum. They’re unexcited, and expect to be left unimpressed. They are greeted by a confident woman who presents herself as a tour guide. The children prepare to follow her through the front door of the museum, but she leads them down a hidden path, explaining, “You’re not like the other kids.” The children follow the guide past an elderly employee, and eventually they find themselves in a room filled with treasure and skulls. The guide intones, “Behold the glorious beauty of Mexico.” She leads the children to The Book of Life, from which she reads them a legend about how the ways of the world came to be. It is a story of a bet between two gods (La Muerte, who rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, who rules the Land of the Forgotten.) It’s also the story of two boys, Joaquin and Manolo, who love the same girl, Mariam the coming of age of all three of them, and the fate of a town threatened by villains. It’s a lot of stories, but as the film rightly says, “All the world is made of stories.”
The Adoption Connection
The theme of remembering, and desiring, those we’ve lost is relevant to folks who’ve been adopted or who are in foster care.
The boys both want Maria’s hand, but Maria asserts, “I belong to no one.”
Although they are rivals, and at times are close to becoming enemies, the friendship of Joaquin and Manolo perseveres; each risks his life to save the other.
The Day of the Dead is a significant part of the story; it underscores the importance of remembering those we have lost.
The film encourages kids to “write your own life.”
Some scenes take place in the underworld. Children might be frightened to see dead characters return, transformed.
One father puts considerable pressure on his son to follow in his footsteps, and expresses great disappointment when the son follows his own heart.
A character comments that he can feel the presence of his lost mother one day a year. It is a good thought, and I think it is a valuable idea to have rituals to help us remember those we have lost – whether through death or through other means; at the same time, it’d be good to make sure kids know that they’re not limited to annual remembrances of those they have lost.
One character tries to comfort a young boy by telling him that, so long as he remembers his dead mother, she is still here – but that if he forgets her, she will be truly gone. I wonder if kids who have lost relationships with their parents through adoption or through foster care might come away from that scene with an unhelpful sense of guilt.
One beloved character dies unexpectedly, and this could be very difficult for young viewers. Earlier, the character is told by a close friend, basically, that he deserves to be dead. (For what it’s worth, the narration of the Day of the Dead is interrupted here and the film cuts back to the detention kids. One of them asks, “What kind of a story is this? We’re just kids!” – it’s welcome comic relief.) ***SPOILER – he is later brought back to life. ***
One character asks, “What is it with Mexicans and death?” It’s meant (and probably will be taken) as a joke, but some audiences might be taken aback at any ethnically-based jokes.
Because he refuses to compromise his sense of right and wrong, one young man is disowned by his father.
A villain attempts to destroy the whole town by blowing himself up.
This is a fun movie with excellent use of music. It shows beautiful friendships that survive difficult times, and family relationships that are restored, even after being severed by death or by arguments. It also emphasizes that value of remembering those with whom we have lost contact (in the film, it’s because of death, but I think adoptees and foster children could also see a connection to the losses they’ve experienced). At the same time, some concerns – and the death-centric aspect of the story, might make it too scary for young viewers. Other kids might be fascinated when a character, upon dying, is reunited with generations of his ancestors. I could see this being hard for adoptees who are reminded of the biologically-related relations they’ve lost, or empowering as they consider their place in the histories of multiple families. It could be a good film to watch and then immediately process with kids between the ages of 9-12; there are good conversations to be had.
Questions for Discussion
Who do you miss? How do you remember them? What could we do to help celebrate our memories of them?
If you could be reunited with people from your past – some that you’ve met, some that you’ve only heard about – who would they be?
What do you think happens after we die?
What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you think your parents support you?