Director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro center the story plot, animation and characters on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday, which is celebrated on November 1 throughout Latin America. This festivity celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away with parties and activities that serve to recognize death as a natural part of life, and also as a way to invite spirits to return from their eternal sleep and join their families in the celebrations.
The film follows the story of three childhood amigos who are caught in a love triangle. Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) is a tender-hearted hero who comes from a long line of champion bullfighters but finds his true passion in playing his guitar. Then we have Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum), a macho-man bandit rustler with medals around his neck and pride in his stride. These childhood friends vie for the love of Maria (Zoe Saldana), the smart and multi-talented daughter of the general who runs their village of San Angel.
All the while, two spirit forces watch over the trio and over their magical lands, a part of the story that taps into Mexican mythology surrounding the Day of the Dead. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, roots for Manolo to win the heart of Maria while Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who rules over the Land of the Forgotten, believes Joaquin will win her heart.
As a result, Manolo is sent on an adventure through the whimsical lands and encounters a series of challenges along the way to seek Maria, who has fallen into a “Sleeping Beauty”-style slumber. Meanwhile, their village of San Angel is being threatened by Chakal, a metallic monster bandit with a gang of thieves.
Throughout the film, the Día de los Muertos theme is embraced through the vibrant characters and settings that have the most familiar symbol of the holiday with calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). Mexican folk art inspires much of the animation, filling the screen with eye-popping colors and details. While the plot itself has been seen before, the visuals and the worlds seen in the film resemble a Day of the Dead themed “Candyland” setting, which is sure to keep the audience pleased.
The characters of Manolo and Joaquin represent positive human qualities such as nobility and self-sacrificial love. While Maria holds an empowering image for the main female role as a headstrong martial arts expert and bookworm, she falls under the “damsel in distress” role at one point and has to be saved by her hero. However, most of her character is positively depicted as an independent woman who is free to make her own choices.
Throughout the film, the significance of Día de los Muertos is constantly being portrayed through the adventures of the three amigos and the spiritual beings that influence their worlds. This multi-tiered plot takes the audience through the general cultural customs of Day of the Dead through acts that include the tales of life after death, good forces of nature over evil and the pursuit of staying close to loved ones who have influenced your world, long after leaving the human realm.