It was the pitch from hell.
Jorge Gutierrez had been granted entry to Guillermo Del Toro’s Los Angeles home, hoping to convince the “Pan’s Labyrinth” filmmaker to produce “The Book of Life,” an animated fantasy centered around the Day of the Dead. He hadn’t counted on doing his pitch outside in the 100-degree heat, with gardeners working all around him, their leaf blowers creating a deafening roar. Nor had he expected to have to cut down his twenty-minute song and dance routine to a mere five minutes, because Del Toro was pressed for time.
“There was life-size statue of Ray Harryhausen that I swear was judging me,” remembers Gutierrez. “I yelled everything to be heard. I almost fell in the pool. I’m drenched in sweat and he’s drenched in sweat.”
At the end of it, Del Toro agreed. The pitch fell flat, but fortunately he knew Gutierrez’s work creating “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera,” the popular Nickelodeon show about a teenage boy with superpowers. He told the animator he was on board.
On Friday, the happy result of that disastrous meeting hits screens nationwide. Inspired by Mexican folk art, “The Book of Life” centers on a love triangle involving a heroic soldier (Channing Tatum), a musically inclined bullfighter (Diego Luna) and the woman who captures both their hearts (Zoe Saldana). The trio becomes the focus of a bet between two spirits (Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman) over who will prevail — a fierce competition that sends Luna’s character into the underworld.
The idiosyncratic plot meant the film was long in gestation. Originally set up at DreamWorks Animation, it ultimately found a home at Reel FX. In Reel, a Dallas-based firm that primarily had focused on commercials and work-for-hire special effects jobs, he found a collaborator looking to take risks. “The Book of Life” marks Reel’s second animated feature following last year’s “Free Birds.” Twentieth Century Fox co-developed and co-financed the project and will distribute the picture globally.
“We’re the new animation studio on the scene and we want to look for things that are distinctive, different and unique in order to brand ourselves,” said Steve O’Brien, CEO of Reel FX.
By involving Hispanic characters and a holiday like Day of the Dead that resonates with that audience, “Book of Life” presents an opportunity for Reel to access a demographic that made films like “Instructions Not Included” breakout hits.
“We took a hard look at the Latino movie-going audience and they do over-index in attendance,” said O’Brien. “Having material for that audience is a plus and gives us a tailwind.”
“The Book of Life” is a little darker than the typical children’s fare, particularly given that Luna ends up encountering the ghosts of his dead relatives. Aside from Bambi’s mother, the mortality rate in animated films remains low. But like the holiday it centers on, the film is as much a celebration of life as it is a meditation on death.
“Its core belief is that as long as we tell stories about those that came before us, sing their songs and cook their favorite dishes, they’re here with us,” said Gutierrez.
O’Brien adds, “As long as we kept the movie a comedy, we knew we’d be just fine. Everybody deals with losing their grandma or grandpa at some point. It’s accessible to the entire family and there are a lot of wonderful family values in it.”
The film also overflows with references to everything from Picasso to spaghetti westerns to Japanese anime all set to an eclectic soundtrack that includes covers of Mumford & Sons and Radiohead songs.
“This movie is a spicy mix of 1,000 influences,” said Gutierrez “It’s a little like mole, where you think chili and chocolate can’t be good together, but then you taste it and you get it. The ingredients on the outside are very different when you combine them.”