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: Right until the conclusion, all left-side images are from The Book of Life and all right-side images are from Coco.
1. Story (spoilers)
The Book of Life: Manolo, Maria and Joaquin are 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. Joaquin accumulates the exploits, but Maria falls in love with the sweet and 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. He survives thanks to Joaquin slipping him the medal of invincibility.
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. 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 play the guitar and sing and they are passionate about music.
- Their respective families oppose their desire to become musicians and want them to pursue the family trade instead (shoe-making or bullfighting).
- Both movies portray dead people visiting a graveyard as invisible ghosts.
- Miguel and Manolo travel to a world where dead people exist as skeletons.
- Dead people stay there as long as someone remembers them among the living. Once they are forgotten, they vanish into dust as a form of “final death”.
- 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.
There’s obviously an infinite amount of differences, but I’ll list the major ones.
The Book of Life:
- Is about a love story starting with a love triangle.
- Involves supernatural beings who meddle in the story: Xibalba and La Muerte.
- Includes a swashbuckling fight against the bandit Chakal.
- Kills off Manolo’s dad.
- Is about a family mystery starting with an old picture.
- Involves a celebrity that Miguel admires: Ernesto de La Cruz.
- Discusses the price of fame.
- Deals with Mama Coco’s dementia.
4. The Land of the Dead
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 200 years ago. 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 doing something similar for The Day of the Dead.
Different names for the same thing
The 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 the same idea in a new wrapping. It uses a different color palette, but some similarities can be spotted in the shapes.
Fantasy vs real-world logic
The Land of the Remembered is in a perpetual state of whimsical celebrations. The newly dead are greeted by an officer on a skeletal horse and everyone’s life story is recorded in a magical book. Coco‘s Land of the Dead uses some real-world logic. Dead people have jobs, cantinas and bureaucratic border control. Only those whose pictures are displayed in ofrendas can cross the bridge to the Land of the Living. Many officers work to ensure smooth operations.
The Land of the Remembered
In The Book of Life, the characters gather on colorful floats and visit 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, along with Mexican folk art. The characters journey by horse to the edge of the Land of the Remembered where they find eclectic deserts and a labyrinth with a stone giant. Then they visit a place called the “Cave of Souls” and finally “the Land of the Forgotten”.
Coco’s Land of the Dead
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 poor neighborhood located at the bottom of the land, an art studio, a plaza set up for a talent show, and Ernesto De la Cruz’s exclusive party venue. Miguel also gets thrown into a water hole. Coco‘s world incorporates cameos from Mexican celebrities and alebrijes, a form of Mexican folk art.
The music in the two movies is very different. What they have 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. In fact, the creators of Coco didn’t want to call their movie a musical, preferring to call it a “music-driven film”.
The Book of Life is a jukebox musical, which means it uses preexisting songs that are rearranged and re-contextualized for the movie (a famous example of jukebox musical is Moulin Rouge!). Each song fits the circumstances and the arrangements are really good. For instance, Manolo sings “I Will Wait for You” while Maria goes to study abroad. It uses mariachi instruments including 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, at least in the same sense that The Book of Life is one. It contains five original songs and one beautiful rearrangement of “La Llorona”, a classic Mexican song. The music composers took inspiration from Mexican sounds like bolero, ranchero, son jarocho, huapango and banda. The main song, “Remember Me”, was composed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, of Frozen fame. She said she wrote it as a lullaby for their children. The other songs are composed by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina.
Here’s what I like about each movie (pictures no longer sorted by side):
Coco is amazing for its depiction of dementia. It’s very clever to include a character with memory problems in a movie about remembrance. Mama Coco’s rare lucid moment at the end is incredibly emotional. I also loved Imelda and Miguel’s exchanges about priorities and forgiveness. Plus, I loved Imelda’s a mesmerizing musical number where she dances her way through a fight with De la Cruz. Another thing that I like about Coco is the sheer amount of details. Even Miguel’s early comments are foreshadowing (“I feel like I’ve been cursed” and “I’ll play in the plaza even if I die”). Dante pulling on Miguel’s sleeve is foreshadowing too! I think Dante is one of the greatest movie dogs, up there with Dug. There’s even a reason for his name: he’s named after De la Cruz’s horse (it can be heard in a movie playing in the background). Finally, I love that Frida Kalho keeps 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 could imagine a sequel involving more underworldly challenges, as the Maya envisioned the afterlife. Finally, I love the snippets of 2D animation included in the story and the unique transitions.