Movie Review by David Goffnian
As an animation fan, a film student and a Mexican, the recent popularity of mainstream Latinx films such as Disney’s Encanto has made me really happy. Encanto’s faithful and well-integrated portrayal of Colombian culture and indigenous struggles give me high hopes for the future of Latin representation in cinema. From its themes to its inclusion of historical moments, Encanto is a step in the right direction for mainstream animation and cinema.
However, it would be disingenuous to only focus and praise big businesses like Disney when smaller teams have actually been highlights of minority representation for longer, especially when it comes to the production side of things. So today I would like to bring some attention to one of Mexico’s first ever full-length animation films: La leyenda de la Nahuala, directed by Ricardo Arnaíz, produced by Animex Producciones and released in 2007.
My feelings about the movie are complicated. Its choppy animation can be excused considering the low budget, but the story itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking. In terms of narrative structure, La leyenda de la Nahuala is fairly standard. The plot focuses on Leo, the kid protagonist, and his attempts to overcome his fear so he can rescue his older brother Nando, who was captured by the titular Nahuala. However, the pacing slows too much for my liking once Leo enters the Casona, an old haunted house where the evil spirit has been residing for the last decades. And, except for the solid voice acting, the movie is somewhat lacking on the technical level. However, a film is more than its formal elements—it can still be worth watching and even discussing if it has something to offer in the realm of capturing a cultural experience, and this is this La Leyenda de la Nahuala’s biggest strength.
La leyenda de la Nahuala is unapologetically Mexican. From its heavy use of slang for both comedy and characterization, to the realistic family hierarchies, there are a lot of details modern audiences can recognize as a part of our current national identity, despite the film being set in 1807. Cultural norms like an indigenous kid being employed by a rich family for domestic work, or death signifying another chance to live rather than the end, shed light on the way Mexican society operates, for better or for worse. And, throughout his adventure, Leo meets a lot of friendly and not- so- friendly characters that represent different aspects of Mexican culture and folklore, especially those surrounding Día de los Muertos. For example, the movie features calaveritas de azúcar, street sellers singing the names of their products, a balero, Catholicism mixed with indigenous beliefs and a snobbish alebrije! Seeing this movie, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much fun it was having by being immersed in the culture, even if not everything connected with me. That dedication is something I certainly respect.
Over the years, Mexican audiences have dismissed national cinema for either being too shallow or too obscure. La leyenda de la Nahuala tends to lean towards the former, but it was nonetheless well received, judging by its four sequels and Netflix series. It might not be the most profound or intellectual, but I do think it deserves more appreciation. Mexican audiences can enjoy the references and foreign ones can learn a thing or two thanks to it. Not everything has to be groundbreaking to be enjoyed and sometimes—standing firm on one’s roots can do more than a fancy message or ultra-smooth animation. The industry needs more films like La leyenda de la Nahuala, because nothing beats a first-hand perspective.
David Goffnian is a Mexican writer, filmmaker and actor. A fiction narrative enthusiast, they’ve been creating stories all their life, with themes relating to death, super powers and social inequality. They are currently an undergraduate student of Communications at the Tecnológico de Monterrey.
Image by Thomas Kinto