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THE BOOK OF LIFE

Story and Characters
Our story begins in a museum, where we meet a mysterious tour guide named Mary Beth, who has taken on the seemingly thankless task of guiding a group of rowdy kids who would rather be anywhere else, on a tour. But Mary Beth has something special in store for them, and escorts them into a secret room, where the magic of THE BOOK OF LIFE begins to unfold. "This particular area of the museum looks like Latin America basically exploded into it, turning it into a place filled with life and color," says Gutierrez.

Mary Beth is voiced by Christina Applegate, who, says Gutierrez, brings a wealth of charm, humor and warmth to the role. "I grew up watching 'Married with Children,'" says Gutierrez of the television series that shot Applegate to stardom, "so I was super excited to be working with Christina."

Applegate's Mary Beth introduces us to the principal characters and their hometown of San Angel. We meet Manolo, who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, Manolo embarks upon an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds, where he must face his greatest fears.

As voiced by acclaimed actor Diego Luna, Manolo is the heart and soul of THE BOOK OF LIFE. Manolo hails from a long line of bullfighters, and he has the potential to become one of the greatest ever. But what he really wants is to play the guitar and sing. And sing he does - to an ultimately wondrous effect. "Manolo reveals his heart through music," says Luna. "And he dreams about Maria and being with her; he thinks she's the most amazing woman."

To that end, Luna notes that THE BOOK OF LIFE is about friendship and true love. While Manolo comes into his own as an adventurer embarking upon a heroic quest, the actor insists that Manolo is not your typical movie hero - and certainly not your typical "Prince Charming." "He just happens to have an amazing talent, which is singing and expressing himself through music, but he's a regular guy. Manolo doesn't have special powers, but he is remarkable in that he is the first one to write his own story," which is such an impressive accomplishment that an ancient god is willing to bend the rules to help Manolo on his journey.

Luna had never before sung in a movie, and no one was more surprised and thrilled when he pulled it off. "Diego called me [after the first song recording session] and was very, very happy," Gutierrez recalls. "He said, 'Jorge, I can sing!' And I love his voice in the movie."

The object of Manolo's affections, Maria, voiced by Zoƫ Saldana, is an independent, strong-willed and fun-loving young woman who is wooed by her best friends Manolo and Joaquin, from their time as children to a reunion years later as adults.

She's certainly not your average "princess," and is equal-or superior - to her suitors in any number of ways.

Maria is close to both boys, but perhaps the wistful Manolo is her true soul mate. "Even when they were kids, Maria had a soft spot for Manolo," says Saldana. "She understands and feels a connection to his sensitive nature. I guess deep down, Maria is an artist and a philosopher."

And, maybe, she's a songstress, too? At the very least, Saldana loved the idea of singing in the film, especially when she learned that Luna would be singing as Manolo. "At first, I wasn't sure Jorge would take my request to sing very seriously. And then, they told me, 'Well, there's this beautiful song, 'No Matter Where You Are,' and we want you to be a part of it.' And I had a really great time with the song."

Manolo, Maria and Joaquin - three best friends - have been close since childhood. Their bond was interrupted when Maria, who was a bit too rebellious for her father's taste, was sent to Europe to become a proper lady. Joaquin joined the military academy and became a legendary bandit-fighter. But Manolo didn't go anywhere - he stayed in San Angel and practiced to become a bullfighter, as his father did before him, and his father before him.

"But even after this long absence, Maria discovers that Manolo and Joaquin haven't changed a bit," says Saldana. "They're still fighting for Maria's attention, but she's her own woman, who is going to make that decision - and many others - on her own. She doesn't consider herself a prize that's going to be won by one of these great guys."

Indeed, love has to wait; first Maria must make some tough decisions, sprint into action to defend her town from marauding bandits, and tend to her four-legged best friend, Chuy, a pig gifted to her by Manolo. A loyal and protective pet, Chuy weighs in at over 300 pounds, sounds like a goat and acts like a puppy.

Maria's other suitor, Joaquin, is voiced by Channing Tatum. Joaquin is the town champion, whose mighty mustache and chest full of medals make the ladies swoon, but like Manolo he only has eyes for Maria. When the stakes couldn't be higher, Joaquin puts aside his ultra-competitiveness and learns that being selfless is the key to true heroism.

Tatum notes that Joaquin has big shoes to fill. "He wants to be a champion like his father, who was a great soldier. And he comes to understand that being a true hero is a lot more than besting your enemy. It's about sacrifice and standing up for someone or something you believe in," says the actor.

Heroism is all well and good, but Tatum admits that what he envied most about Joaquin was something much more tactile than bravery. "I think he looks amazing; I wish I had Joaquin's jaw and mustache. Joaquin is very proud of his 'stache - wouldn't you be?!" (Diego Luna's Manolo doesn't fare as well in the facial hair department; in fact, in a town full of mustaches, he's the only clean-shaven principal male character.)

Surprisingly, Tatum's casting seemed pre-destined. "When we pitched Channing the movie, he loved it and was laughing the entire time," says Gutierrez. "And then he took me aside and said, 'You know I'm not Mexican, right?' We had a big laugh, and Channing just jumped in and made Joaquin his own."

"I told Channing that Joaquin was basically 'Captain Latin America,'" Gutierrez quips. "That he needed to have the bravado of Argentina, the smoothness of Brazil - and of course, the mustaches of Mexico!" Tatum's retort: "Oh, so I should just be me."

Gutierrez welcomed Tatum's improvisations, including one that will likely become a signature character trait: Joaquin yelling his own name every time he leaps into action.

Following Maria's return to San Angel, the trio is reunited at the bullfighting arena, where Manolo is preparing for his first match. Manolo, like all the Sanchez men who preceded him, battles bravely and skillfully. But unlike his forebears, when the moment comes for Manolo to finish the bull, he refuses. The whole town turns on Manolo, including his father who feels terribly let down. Moreover, Manolo fears he may have thrown away his chance to woo Maria.

As if bucking family tradition wasn't enough of a barrier to Manolo's romantic pursuits, two other principals have thrown themselves into the romantic triangle, and they're betting it all on who ends up with Maria's hand. The battling husband-and-wife deities La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) have made a wager, and the stakes for all of them couldn't be higher. Resolute in her belief in the fundamental goodness of mortals, La Muerte puts her faith in Manolo. If he succeeds in winning Maria's hand, then La Muerte will remain the beloved ancient god who oversees a wondrous world called The Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba must stop his meddlesome ways with humans.

La Muerte's estranged husband Xibalba is putting it all on the line on Joaquin. Xibalba, a winged, ancient god who rules the desolate Land of the Forgotten, is, like many couples, the polar opposite of his spouse. While La Muerte is made of delicious sugar candy, Xibalba is made of tar and "everything icky in the world," says Gutierrez. Xibalba enjoys interfering with the lives of humans, so the wager with La Muerte is right up his alley. And if he wins, Xibalba will take his wife's place as the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, while La Muerte will be banished to The Land of the Forgotten.

Del Toro likens the warring couple's attraction to each other to "a Hepburn and Tracy" dynamic. "They generally adore each other, but they can't be together," he says. "At the same time, they can't be apart."

"Xibalba and La Muerte play this kind of game with one another, which is part of the romantic dance they have," adds Ron Perlman. "He really loves her because La Muerte is the only woman he's ever met who completely fascinates him."

Kate del Castillo says the couple's relationship is a classic case of "opposites attracting." It's also a kind of marital high-wire act. "La Muerte and Xibalba balance each other," adds the actress.

As far as their friendly wager, the odds may be stacked in Xibalba's favor because he doesn't play fair. "He'll do anything to win," says Perlman. First, he gives Joaquin a magic medal that prevents the young soldier from ever getting hurt. And while Joaquin is trying to win Maria with brawn, machismo and his formidable mustache, Manolo's more romantic overtures seem to be yielding results - until Xibalba tricks Manolo into thinking Maria has gone to The Land of the Remembered, and the deceitful spirit offers him a chance to be reunited with her.

At first, Manolo is delighted by what he finds in The Land of the Remembered. It's an incredible world full of color and celebratory spirit. "It's New York City's Times Square on New Year's Eve combined with Rio during Carnival," notes Gutierrez. "It's this incredible party that keeps growing." Including: all you can eat churros!

Manolo gets swept up in the parade of his ancestors, who to Manolo are superheroes he's been hearing about his entire life. But his joy is tempered when he discovers that Maria is not there - and indeed never made the journey to The Land of the Remembered. With the support of his ancestors, Manolo embarks on an extraordinary mission to find La Muerte, who is the only one who can help him return to San Angel.

But first, he must travel to a portal, the Cave of Souls, between all the magical lands. There, Manolo meets another spirit, the Candle Maker. With a body made of wax and a beard made of clouds, the Candle Maker is a larger than life - and kind of nutty - ancient god. He makes billions of candles, with each candle representing a life. "The Candle Maker looks over - and geeks out over - humanity," says lead animator Eric Dobrile.

The Candle Maker is entrusted with the titular tome, The Book of Life. "Everyone's story is written in The Book of Life," Gutierrez explains. "But Manolo's pages are empty, meaning he is writing his own story. He's not doing what others, including his family, are telling him to do."

Though he's supposed to be hands-off with mortals, the Candle Maker bends the rules a little to help Manolo. "He sees something special in Manolo," says Ice Cube, who makes his animated feature debut voicing the Candle Maker. "The Candle Maker has never seen blank pages in The Book of Life, so this is an exciting thing for him. Also, it's The Day of the Dead, which provides some license for him to break a few rules."

A bonus for the rotund, loud and lovable character is the chance to interact with mortals, whom he hasn't seen in a very long time. "The Candle Maker is the only one who can tell people what The Book of Life is saying, and The Book is always saying something," Ice Cube adds.

As Manolo makes his way back to San Angel, a battle lies ahead for him and all the townspeople. The grizzled and monstrous Chakal and his band of thieves are preparing to raid San Angel, and it seems that no one can stop them.

The future of San Angel, as well as the destinies of Manolo, Joaquin and Maria, will be determined by this final battle.

Chakal, voiced by Dan Navarro, is a formidable foe in every way, including physically. While most of the characters are made of wood, Chakal and the bandits' embracing of the dark side led them to put metal atop their wooden frames, which eventually caused the wood to rot away, effectively turning Chakal into a living wrecking ball of a man. When he walks down the street, it feels and sounds like a tank rolling by.

The film's rich cavalcade of characters also includes Manolo's stoic father, Carlos Sanchez, voiced by veteran character actor Hector Elizondo. Carlos is the world's greatest bullfighter, and he cannot understand his son's obsession with music and lack of interest in wielding the red cape. "Carlos is a great bullfighter, his father was a great bullfighter, his father's father was a great bullfighter - and so he expects Manolo to carry on in that tradition," says Elizondo. "It's not only his legacy; it's his destiny."

But as Carlos learns, one's destiny is not always written for you. What doesn't change is the importance of remembering one's ancestors. "THE BOOK OF LIFE, in many ways, is about that remembrance," adds Elizondo. "It's about cherishing those memories. After all, what are we if not memories?"

Manolo's feisty and quick-witted great-grandmother, known simply as Grandma (voiced by Grey Griffin), is sure to become another audience favorite. Short in stature but long of whisker and tough to boot, Grandma is more than a match for the men in her family - past, present and future. "Grandma's kind of seen it all and been through it all, and she's kind of our Peanut Gallery," says producer Brad Booker, who adds that she's his favorite character in the film.

Also making an impact on Manolo's journey are: Carmen (voiced by Ana de la Reguera), Manolo's wise, funny and nurturing mother with whom he is reunited in The Land of the Remembered; General Posada (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui), Maria's over-protective father and San Angel's kind-hearted leader; Luis (voiced by Danny Trejo), Manolo's super-macho grandfather and an old-school, no-nonsense bullfighter with a mustache that makes men cower; and Chato (voiced by Eugenio Derbez), Chakal's right-hand man.

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