Celebrating Life, Death, Family, and Music with “COCO”

pixar-coco-

For film viewers with an open mind to experience something new, like a foreign culture, a movie like Disney and Pixar’s “Coco” will be one of the greatest visual spectacles they could ever watch right now. Personally, I think said film actually hits somewhat close to home in a sense; perhaps it’s the common cultural elements both Mexico and the Philippines got from Spain. Anyway, one of the central themes of this film revolves around Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead celebration from October 31 to November 2 of each year. That special occasion is the figurative (and magically literal) bridge by which the story of “Coco” is made possible on-screen.

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales) is a 12-year-old boy from a family of shoemakers in the Mexican town of Santa Cecilia. Said family has a near-fanatical hatred of all music, which they deem a curse. All this is rooted in the time of the family scion, Imelda, who was abandoned with her young daughter Coco by her musician husband who left to “perform for the world” and never returned. Coco is the oldest surviving member of the Rivera family and Miguel’s great-grandmother, now going old and senile in her very advanced age.

On that year’s Dia de Muertos, the Rivera clan is wont to stay at home and celebrate their shoemaking forbears, but Miguel has other ideas: he is an abominable anomaly to his relatives in that he is an aspiring musician, inspired by Santa Cecilia’s late 1940s hometown hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the “greatest musician of Mexico.” Miguel has a guitar of his own and actually does have some playing and singing skill, but when his secret hobby is discovered on Dia de Muertos itself, the results are heartbreaking (and guitar-breaking) courtesy of the boy’s loving yet ultra-strict grandma Elena (Renee Victor).

Miguel believes his only chance to pursue his dream is to perform at the town’s Dia de Muertos music festival. But with his guitar gone, his only recourse is to get one. A clue Miguel discovers from the photo of Mama Imelda and Coco on the family’s Dia de Muertos ofrenda seems to insinuate that his great-great-grandfather (a persona non grata to the Rivera family with his face torn off from the picture with his wife and child) is Ernesto de la Cruz himself. This spurs Miguel to break into Ernesto’s mausoleum (killed in a concert accident in 1942) at the local cemetery to “borrow” his enshrined guitar.

His desperate action has some incredible magical consequences: Miguel becomes a ghost to the land of the living, but is now visible to the dead, rendered as animated ghostly skeletons that are allowed to visit their surviving families on the night of Dia de Muertos. The sole exception to this is Dante, a stray Mexican hairless dog that Miguel befriended long before all this. Dante leads Miguel to his “visiting” departed relatives able to cross over because their photos are laid out on the Rivera family ofrenda – except for Mama Imelda (because Miguel took her photo with him upon discovering the hint about her husband, his great-great-grandfather).

To resolve that problem and learn what happened to Miguel, the Rivera ancestors take him with them back to the Land of the Dead, a sprawling and colorful wonderland of the departed like only the visionaries of Pixar can imagine. The “afterlife immigration” officers offer a simple solution: Miguel can easily return to the living through a departed relative’s blessing. And he must return before the night is over or he’ll be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever; already he’s slowly turning into a skeleton himself. But the only relative who’ll give that blessing is Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who started the music ban in her descendants.

None of that for Miguel, though. He assumes his chance to return lies with his assumed great-great-grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz. To find him in the Land of the Dead he gains the reluctant aid of the trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have known Ernesto in life. In return, Hector wants to entrust Miguel with a photo to bring back to the living world, as only those departed whose images are displayed in memorial can make the crossing, and Hector wants to see his daughter in the hopes that she can still remember him.

Remembrance is important to those who are dead, with a dire fate in store for spirits who are completely forgotten. With that in mind, Miguel and Hector team up to get to the bottom of the Rivera family history. Without spoiling further, some things do not go as planned, and some facts are not as they seem.

It’s amazing to see the amount of research an utter reverence that Disney and Pixar put into creating as accurate a snapshot of Mexican culture as there can be in “Coco,” considering that the initial production phases of the film were mired in controversy over the issues of copyright. We’ll not elaborate on that background as it has no weight in this review, but if this is the manner by which Disney might be apologizing for its missteps and overreach then they did great and then some.

Director Lee Unkrich masterfully converted the touching and emotion screenplay by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina into a wondrous tale that reconciles the often contradictory lessons of “following one’s dreams” and “standing with family.” Such is no mean feat, and the effect is only strengthened by the impressive Latino soundtrack for “Coco” courtesy of Michael Giacchino, enhanced by superb song numbers mostly from the pens of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Yes, the “Frozen” song couple. All I need to mention now is the title of one of their “Coco” songs: “Remember Me.” That’s all I need to say about just how awesome the musical work is here.

“Coco” was preceded in the viewing schedule by a Walt Disney Animation Studio short of almost a half-hour in length, entitled “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” I’d like to talk about that too, but let’s not have this review run for longer than necessary; maybe some other time.

In closing, “Coco” is undoubtedly the latest greatest example of just how well the Disney-Pixar tandem can deal and present themes as varied as family ties, dreams, death and remembrance. The Mexican movie audience would certainly think so, what with them having “Coco” running in their cinemas well ahead of the rest of the world. It’s now the most successful film in the entire history of Mexico’s box office, after all. But now that it’s started showing everywhere else, the rest of the world will soon see that “Coco” is not just a film celebrating Mexican culture for Mexicans, it’s also a tale with underlying themes that relate to all mankind, transcending culture and everything else.

Photo courtesy of gadgets.ndtv.com

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