Dia de los Muertos, the ‘Day of the Dead’ is a traditional Mexican counterpart to the Celtic Samhain (“Sah-win”; a 3,000 year old ritual that evolved, through various cultural appropriations, into modern Halloween).
Both holidays represent a time of the year when the ‘barrier’ between the living and spirit worlds is thinnest, and the dead can briefly revisit their former haunts (no pun intended).
The biggest observable difference between the two is that while Halloween is a time of scares and placating angry visiting ghosts, Mexico’s Day of the Dead is one of remembrance and celebration of the returning spirits. There is no fear of the spirit world; only joy at their brief return to this world. It’s a time of communion, not terror. Of family, not fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here; Halloween is still (and always will be) my favorite holiday, but there is something to be truly admired in the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos as well.
Pixar’s new holiday film “Coco” (2017) brilliantly and vividly captures the color, warmth and vitality of this Mexican custom with a tale that is both deeply respectful and unapologetically joyful.
Hearty rounds of applause to the dual-directors (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina), the writers (Unkrich, Molina, Jason Katz & Matthew Aldrich) and a sensational voice cast that includes Anthony Gonzales (“Miguel”), Gael Garcia Bernal (“Hector”), Alanna Ubach (“Imelda”), Benjamin Bratt (the flamboyant “Ernesto de la Cruz”), Renee Victor (“Abuelita”), and many cameo roles memorably filled by such Mexican-American luminaries as Cheech Marin and Edward James Olmos (in a small but significant supporting role, much like his recent “Blade Runner 2049” cameo). Even Pixar mainstay voice talent and former “Cheers” costar John Ratzenberger has a credited role as “Juan Ortodoncia.” All involved deserve a bow. Their characters are well-delineated and memorable. And the songs in “Coco” are a lot less Broadway-ish than a typical Disney movie offering; they’re kept more heartfelt and simple.
I can almost guarantee that the song “Remember Me” will leave even the most hardened audience member feeling a bit of something in their eye…
As I did with my review of “Thor: Ragnorak” a few entries ago, I’m going to cut-and-paste the “Coco” story synopsis from Ye Olde Wikipedia, so I can get on with my own analysis afterward:
****** WARNING!! ALEBRIJE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!! *******
The Rivera family history is told, explaining that its matriarch Imelda was the wife of a musician, who left her and her child Coco to pursue a career in music. She banned music in the family, and turned to shoemaking, which became the family business. Her great-great-grandson, 12-year-old Miguel, now lives with elderly Coco and their family in a small Mexican village. He secretly dreams of becoming a musician like Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular singer and film star, and contemporary of Imelda. But when Miguel tries to enter a talent show for the Day of the Dead, his grandmother Elena destroys his guitar. Miguel then discovers something hidden in the photo of Imelda at the center of the family ofrenda: her husband (whose face is ripped out) was holding Ernesto’s famous guitar.
Concluding that he is Ernesto’s great-great-grandson, Miguel is emboldened to steal the musician’s guitar to use in the show, but then finds he is no longer visible or tangible to living people (only to Dante, a street dog he has befriended). Instead he can see his skeletal dead relatives – who are visiting the Land of the Living for the holiday – and they can see him. They take him to Land of the Dead, where they learn that Imelda couldn’t cross because Miguel removed her portrait from the ofrenda. Furthermore, Miguel has to be restored to the Land of the Living before sunrise, or he will become one of the dead. The curse which sent him to this plane of existence can be undone by the blessing of a family member such as Imelda, but she will only give it if he agrees to give up music. He refuses, and goes in search of Ernesto, figuring he can get a blessing from him with no such conditions.
Miguel encounters Héctor, a down-on-his-luck skeleton who once played with Ernesto and offers to take Miguel to him, for a favor: Héctor is in danger of being forgotten by the living, and wants Miguel to take his photo back, so Héctor can use it to visit his daughter before she forgets him and he disappears completely. Héctor is no longer friendly with Ernesto, but he helps Miguel get into the singer’s lavish party, and Ernesto cheerfully welcomes Miguel as his great-great-grandson. Héctor gets in also, and confronts Miguel and Ernesto, angry that the boy has neglected their deal. In the confrontation, Héctor realizes that his death was not accidental: he was poisoned by Ernesto, who used Héctor’s songs to become famous. But Ernesto takes his photo, and detains them both.
They figure out that Héctor is Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, and the living relative who knew him is Coco. With the help of Dante – an alebrije – Imelda and the other dead Riveras find them. Miguel explains to Imelda that Héctor actually died trying to return to her, and they reconcile. They infiltrate Ernesto’s big sunrise concert to retrieve Héctor’s portrait, but the plan fails and Héctor’s portrait is lost. However Ernesto is exposed to his fans as a fraud, and gets crushed by the same bell that killed him.
As the sun rises, Héctor is about to disappear. To save him, Imelda blesses Miguel without conditions, and he rushes to Coco’s side. Using Héctor’s old guitar, Miguel sings “Remember Me”, a song that Héctor sang to Coco, which sparks her memory and revitalizes her. She retrieves from a bundle of mementos the missing part of the photo from the ofrenda, with Héctor’s face. With Coco’s support for him, Miguel reconciles with the living Riveras, who accept him – and music – into their household.
One year later, Miguel proudly presents the family ofrenda – which now features a photo of the deceased Coco – to his new baby sister. Miguel’s revelations about Ernesto have left him to be forgotten by the living, who now honor Héctor in his place . In the Land of the Dead, Héctor and Imelda join Coco to cross the bridge to see their living family, including Miguel, who sings and plays the guitar for the living and deceased Riveras.
The above synopsis is, of course, just the bare mechanics of the story; but it doesn’t cover the tremendous heart, depth, emotion and joy of this film. This is easily Pixar’s best movie since 2009’s “Up” (which utterly broke my heart in the opening 10 minutes).
And while the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday has never been depicted in a big-budget children’s movie before to the best of my knowledge, I was aware during my viewing of “Coco” that there were some interesting cinematic parallels with other movies. Nothing so obvious as homage, but rather a similar feeling. Miguel’s journey into the Land of the Dead has parallels. One of which was Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” (2009), which had the young titular character enter a dark, button-eyed parallel reality that mirrored her own. The young character lost in a nether world also reminded me of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s modern classic “Spirited Away” (2001), which I only saw for the first time eleven months ago at a special 15th anniversary screening. The depiction of “Spirited Away”’s young Chihiro and her decent into the ancient ‘spirit village’ reminded me very much of Miguel’s own colorful journey into the Land of the Dead. The spirit dimensions of both films are more colorful, magical and vibrant than their real world-counterparts. And protagonists Coraline, Chihiro and Miguel are all accidental intruders into their respective new worlds, using disguises, wits and friendly contacts to try to maintain a low profile (or simply to stay alive in Coraline and Chihiro’s cases).
But while “Coraline” and “Spirited Away” have a deep undercurrent of darkness and danger in their nether realms, the spirit world of “Coco” is awash in color, music and celebration.
One almost wonders why the skeletal ghosts in the Land of the Dead would be so eager to return to the land of the living every year. But the movie answers that question with one word; familia. Family is the heart of the movie. The idea of reuniting once a year with their loved ones in the real world seems irresistible to those in “Coco”’s afterlife.
Miguel’s spirit-world quest to find what he believes to be his great-great-great grandfather is also very similar to the quest for family truths seen in 2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” (a film that is very much a Japanese counterpart to “Coco” in many respects). The quest to learn about the one’s father (or great-great grandfather) is what drives Kubo and Miguel, as both seek to follow in their presumed dead relative’s footsteps. Both characters also use music as a means to unleash their primal power. Kubo has his magical strings in his shamisen (a three stringed, guitar-like musical instrument), while Miguel is armed only with his ancestor’s latent talent (he has to beg/steal/borrow for use of a guitar), which he desperately hopes will free him from a life of unfulfilled dreams.
And in both “Kubo” and “Coco”, the parental/ancestral figures whose guidance/blessings the heroes sought were right there all along. Kubo’s animal spirit guides (a monkey and a giant beetle) are his parents’ reincarnations, while Miguels’ down-on-his-luck ghostly guide Hector is, in fact, the very ancestor he’d sought all along as well.
But the resolution to that ancestral quest alone is not enough in “Coco.” “Coco” is also about familial reconciliation, and of seeking atonement for perceived past mistakes (Hector’s seeming abandonment of Imelda, and their beloved daughter, Coco) . There is also a strong tone of forgiveness. Finally given the blessings of his family to pursue his music, Miguel immediately uses it to help the aged, infirm Coco to remember her father; thus saving Hector from spiritual oblivion. While I’m not a spiritual person, the movie reinforces the closest analog I’ve ever had to a belief in an afterlife; that we live on after death within the memories of those who loved us. This is my own de facto afterlife mythology, and “Coco” has the most literal depiction of that belief I’ve yet seen.
Every element of the story (from squabbling relatives and musical competitions to the moribund titular character) gracefully orbits a common dual-gravitational center of family and forgiveness. All the generations can enjoy “Coco”, and perhaps they will even see themselves reflected within the colorful multigenerational collection of characters. In fact, I’d recommend “Coco” as a perfect family reunion movie.
“Coco” es magnifico y marvelloso.
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