It’s comparison time! Let’s look at what The Book of Life and Coco actually have in common. I’m warning you: this is a long article. I will start by summarizing the story of each movie, then I will list the similarities and the differences, then I will compare specifically their representation of the Day of the Dead and their use of music. I will also include a lot* of pictures to show you what I’m talking about.
For the record, I love both films to death (ah!), so this post isn’t a contest and it isn’t about trashing one of the movies. I think it’s fascinating to see two interpretations of the same ideas done by different artists. And the artists who worked on both of these films are truly extraordinary. The Book of Life was made by Reel FX and released in 2014. Coco was made by Pixar and released in 2017. Here is my comparison 💀🌸 🖼🕯!
*Note: Until the conclusion, left images are from The Book of Life and right images are from Coco.
1. Story (spoilers)
The Book of Life: Manolo, Maria and Joaquin are three childhood best friends. The gods La Muerte and Xibalba make a bet about which boy will marry Maria. Hoping to slant the odds in his favor, Xibalba gives Joaquin a medal that makes him invincible. Despite Joaquin accumulating exploits, Maria falls in love with the artistic Manolo, a bullfighter who would rather be a singer. Unwilling to lose the bet, Xibalba kills Manolo with a snake bite. In the afterlife, Manolo learns that his village is in danger. He exposes Xibalba’s treachery and proposes a final wager. If Manolo conquers his greatest fear, he will be given his life back. Manolo’s greatest fear turns out to be “being himself”. He sings a song in front of his family and lets them know that he’s abandoning the bullfighting tradition. Manolo then comes back to life and sacrifices himself to save the village, but he survives the fatal blow thanks to Joaquin slipping him the medal.
Coco: Miguel aspires to be a musician, but music is banned in his family since his great-great-grandfather left to pursue music and never returned. One day, Miguel discovers that his great-great-grandfather became the famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel tries to steal a guitar from his catacombe and is transported to the Land of the Dead. To go back, Miguel needs the blessing of a family member, but his family refuses to help him unless he renounces music. Miguel decides to seek out de la Cruz. He recruits the help of Hector, a vagabond without a family. It is revealed that Hector is actually Miguel’s great-great-grandfather and that de la Cruz murdered Hector to steal his songs. Miguel goes back to the living and sings Hector’s song to his great-grandma who struggles with memory loss. The song prompts her to remember her father and she retrieves his picture and a series of letters proving he wrote the songs.
- Miguel and Monolo both play the guitar and sing, but their family opposes their desire to become musicians and wants them to pursue the family trade instead.
- Both movies portray dead people visiting a graveyard as invisible ghosts.
- Miguel and Manolo travel to a world where dead people keep on existing as long as a living person remembers them. In both worlds, the forgotten vanishes into dust.
- Manolo’s mom and Mama Imelda have the same white strand of hair.
- Both movies have a grandma in an old-fashioned wheelchair who dies in the end.
- Miguel has dead identical twin uncles and Manolo has dead identical twin aunts.
- Both movies have a theme of getting music accepted by the family and achieving this is a key element in getting the protagonists back to the world of the living.
- Miguel and Manolo each turn out to have two ancestors who loved to sing.
- Both movies end with a dance party featuring the living and the dead together.
- The Book of Life is a romance revolving around a love triangle.
- Coco is a family mystery revolving around a lost family member.
- The Book of Life has Xibalba and La Muerte, two gods inspired by Mexican tradition.
- Coco has Ernesto de la Cruz, a made-up celebrity.
- The Book of Life includes a swashbuckling battle against the bandit Chakal.
- Coco discusses fame and show business.
- Manolo’s dad dies while fighting Chakal.
- Miguel’s grandma has dementia (probably Alzheimer).
4. The Land of the Dead
Tradition says the dead come visit the living on the Day of the Dead. But where are they coming from? The Book of Life imagines they reside in a place called the Land of the Remembered. The Land of the Remembered is portrayed as a transitional world where the dead remain as long as they are remembered by the living. Coco‘s Land of the Dead uses a re-interpretation of the same idea. Visually, the colors look completely different, but similarities can be spotted in the architecture.
The Land of the Remembered is more fantastical while Coco‘s Land of the Dead is more grounded. In the Land of the Remembered, the dead party continuously. They are greeted by a single officer and their life story is recorded by the candle maker in a magical book. In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, the dead have jobs and bureaucracy. Only those whose pictures are displayed in ofrendas can cross over to the Land of the Living, so many officers work at the border to enforce the rules.
In The Book of Life, Manolo finds his family on colorful floats and visits a castle that looks like a mix between a genealogical tree, an Aztec temple and a church. The pre-Colombian motifs are a visual theme throughout the film, along with Mexican folk art. Manolo journeys by skeletal horse to the edge of the Land of the Remembered where he crosses an eclectic desert and a labyrinth guarded by a stone giant. These locations are reminiscent of the trials the dead could face in Mayan religion.
In Coco, the characters first pass through a border post and transportation hub inspired by Mexico City’s Palacio de correos. It has tramways and cable cars. The characters also visit a disenfranchised neighborhood located at the bottom of the land, an art studio frequented by Frida Kalho, a plaza hosting a talent show, and Ernesto De la Cruz’s exclusive party venue. Miguel also gets thrown into a water hole and rubs elbow with live alebrijes, which are a form of Mexican folk art.
The music in the two movies is very different, but what it has in common is that the characters don’t break into song mid-conversation, rather the songs are performed within the context of the story. For instance, Manolo sings when he practices playing the guitar, when he serenades Maria, when he performs at a corrida and at his wedding. In Coco, Hector plays a song for his friend, Miguel performs at a talent show, Imelda sings in Ernesto’s concert and Miguel sings for his family. The creators of Coco didn’t call their movie a musical, they called it a “music-driven film”.
The Book of Life is in part a jukebox musical, which means it uses preexisting songs that are rearranged and re-contextualized for the movie. In this case, I thought each song befitted the circumstances perfectly. For instance, Manolo sings “I Will Wait for You” while Maria is studying abroad. It’s a fun arrangement using mariachi instruments and lots of guitar. There are also four original songs: “I Love You Too Much”, “The Apology Song”, “No Matter Where You Are” and “Live Life”. They are composed by indie and Mexican bands and Gustavo Santaolalla.
Despite what Pixar said about Coco not being a musical, Coco is definitely a musical. It contains five original songs and one rearrangement of “La Llorona”, a classic Mexican song. The composers took inspiration from Mexican music genres like bolero, ranchero, son jarocho, huapango and banda. The main song, “Remember Me”, was composed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the composers of Frozen. Kristen Anderson-Lopez said she wrote “Remember Me” as a lullaby for their children. The other songs are composed by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina.
Coco is amazing for its touching depiction of dementia. It was very clever to include a character with memory problems in a movie about remembering. I also loved Imelda and Miguel’s exchange about priorities and forgiveness. Imelda’s musical number was mesmerizing too as she dances her way through a fight with de la Cruz. Another thing I love about Coco is the sheer amount of details. Did you notice all the foreshadowing? Think about Miguel’s early comments (“I feel like I’ve been cursed” and “I’ll play in the plaza even if I die”) and remember that Dante kept pulling Miguel towards Hector! Speaking of Dante, I think he is one of the greatest movie dogs, up there with Dug. The movie even reveals the reason for his name: he’s named after De la Cruz’s horse, whose name can be heard in a movie playing in the background of the party scene! Finally, I love that Frida Kalho kept popping up in the story!
I love The Book of Life for its cheerfulness, gorgeous animation, lovable characters and layered mythology. All the main characters are fleshed out. Joaquin is an orphan who adopts a macho persona in the hopes of living up to the memory of his heroic father. Maria is the rebellious daughter of the town’s mayor and a staunch opponent of animal cruelty. It makes perfect sense that she falls in love with Manolo, the sensitive bullfighter who refuses to kill the bull at the end of a bullfight. He even gifts her an adorable pet pig! The Land of the Remembered looks incredible and contains fun supernatural secrets, like the candle maker and his “Book of Life”. I love how it mixes fantasy with influences from pre-Colombian cultures. I would definitely want to see a sequel exploring more of the underworld. Finally, I loved the snippets of 2D animation included in the story and the unique transitions between scenes.
I feel like both movies contribute to the lore of the Day of the Dead, just like various stories helped shape the mythology surrounding Christmas. Poems like “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” established that Santa Claus drove a reindeer sleigh and entered homes through a chimney. Thomas Nash’s cartoons later established he lived in the North Pole. The Book of Life and Coco are now doing something similar for the Day of the Dead.