The Book of Life, Chilren’s Movies and Facing Reality

Coming this Halloween, there’s going to be a new movie by Guillermo Del Toro called “The Book of Life”.  A typical children’s underdog story about a man named Manolo who is torn between his families expectations and following his own heart.  And so he embarks on a supernatural journey and three tasks.

YouTube Link:  The Book of Life Trailer

The idea of the story aside, it does look to be an intriguing film, mainly based on how the characters are visually designed to look like puppets that one finds on Dios Le Las Mortes (Day of the Dead) and added to this is that the film takes place on the Day of the Dead, a holiday that isn’t given a lot of exposure in American pop culture because it’s so close to Halloween that it’s often overlooked.

But in the aspects of the underdog and making efforts to follow one’s own desires, I was thinking back to something that was spoken about by Stephen Fry (when asked the difference between British and American Humor). What he talked about in his opinion was how in America there’s this cultural notion of “optimism” and a “refusal to see one’s self in a bad light”.  Basically, that “life is refinable and improvable” (source:  Stephen Fry on American vs British Humor).  In a case of the Underdog Story it’s a case of where one can rise above their place and achieve what they want, such as getting the girl (as will probably be seen in “The Book of Life”) or winning the race even though you’re slow as hell (example:  “Turbo” from Dreamworks Animation).

In a way, stories like this are inspiring but there is a danger in putting too much stock in it.  What I mean by this is that it may setup the notion that you can win just because you’re an underdog, that you don’t even have to try that hard to win whatever you want.  All you have to do is be an underdog and be likable and somehow it’ll all workout.  And if you carry this idea through life, the disappointments that one will face are going to be devastatingly hard to take and the delusion of “not seeing ones self in a bad light” will be too engrained to really make any kind of change.

Another way to do an Underdog Story, which doesn’t seem to be done as much in America would have to be like what was done in the film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”.  Now, anyone who has grown up watching the Peanuts specials on television or read the comic strips will understand this when I say that Charlie Brown is the ultimate underdog.  He’s at a position in life where he has so much going against him.  He’s fat, he’s bald, and he doesn’t really have a lot of skills going for him and despite going with the American idea of “Life being improved upon”, he just fails miserably at it.  The examples of this are laid out in the film, he tries to fly a kite and it crashes and gets torn up, but he comes back inside, makes another one and goes back out to try again.  He’s the manager of a failing baseball team and they lose nearly every game they play.  The only games that they win are the ones where he’s not around.

But then, in the same spirit of getting up and trying, he tries out for the school spelling bee.  He manages to beat his classmates, then he manages to beat the rest of the school and then he goes on to the National Spelling Bee.  At the end, it’s down to him and one other kid and he loses miserably and ironically because he couldn’t spell the word “Beagle”.  To rub salt in the wound of it, his own dog, Snoopy, is a beagle breed and one would think that he would know how to spell this word but in the true Charlie Brown style, he fails miserably at it.

So, he goes home a defeated man with his tail between his legs and spends the next day in bed with the shades drawn unwilling to get up and face the world.  But, his best friend, Linus Van Pelt, comes to him and tells him that yes, he lost the spelling bee.  Yes, he failed miserably.  Yes, he made a fool of himself.  Yes, he disappointed himself and everyone else at home because of it.  But before Linus leaves him alone he asks him one simple question:  “Did you notice something, Charlie Brown?”

Curious, Charlie asks, “What?”

And Linus tells him the most pragmatic thing that a child can say to another:  “The world didn’t come to an end.”

Afterwards, Charlie slowly gets up from his bed and goes out into the world and continues on with his life.  In a way, it is inspiring.  It may not be as inspiring as a snail winning the Indianapolis 500 (“Turbo”) or the quirky underdog getting the unattainable woman or anything like that, but still inspiring in a way.  It’s inspiring in an everyday man sort of way that tells us that through life you’re going to face one disappointment after the other, that you’re going to fail a lot, that you’re going to trip over your own feet but the world keeps on spinning and you have to keep on spinning with it.

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