Pixar celebrates Day of the Dead, family ties with captivating ‘Coco’

  • Matt Shiverdecker
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 Movies & TV
“Coco” beautifully pays tribute to Mexican culture. Contributed by Disney/Pixar

“Coco,” the 19th animated feature from Pixar, is an endearing fable about following your dreams and the importance of keeping the memory of our loved ones alive.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy from a family of shoemakers who lives in the fictional rural Mexican village of Saint Cecilia. The extended family, including grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor) and great-grandmother Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), all live together in one not always entirely happy home.

Due to intense disapproval from Abuelita, music of any kind is not allowed to be performed or enjoyed in their household. Despite this, Miguel has a secret hideout where he listens to the record albums of his musical hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most beloved singer in Mexico before his tragic death.

Hidden away, Miguel has taught himself how to play the guitar from watching old movies. He doesn’t understand why the family hates music so much and can only surmise that the entire family is cursed. After learning about a local talent show in the town square for Dia de los Muertos, he sneaks away, hoping to perform. The only problem? Abuelita smashed his guitar into a thousand pieces after discovering his hideout.

Out of desperation to prove his talent, Miguel breaks into Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum and steals a mounted guitar off the wall so that he can play in front of an audience for the first time. But the moment he touches the guitar, he crosses over a breathtaking marigold bridge that connects the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead and is reunited with several of his deceased relatives who were coming back for the holiday.

His arrival on “the other side” causes a big stir — a living human cannot stay in the Land of the Dead for long unless they are looking to stay permanently. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), immediately wants to send him back home, but under the strict caveat that he never plays music again. Unable to accept that restriction, Miguel runs deep into the Land of the Dead trying to find de la Cruz. Help is earned from Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton who is slipping away because he is being slowly forgotten back in the Land of the Living.

Family secrets hidden for decades are soon revealed, and the quest to get Miguel back home where he belongs proves to have many obstacles. We’ve always heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but in this case it’s a combination of those who are alive and dead along with a few spirit guides for good measure.

Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and Adrian Molina (who co-directed and co-wrote the screenplay) have created a dynamic tribute to Mexican culture that will resonate around the globe as an enthralling celebration of family ties. The dialogue often naturally flows from English to Spanish and back again, especially during the delightful original songs. This is a movie that works hard to get it right and has the power to bridge the gap between generations.

Be warned that some of the imagery and story elements may be slightly too intense for your youngest children, especially for those younger than 5. If all the skeletons don’t scare them, it’s entirely possible that Pepita, Mamá Imelda’s flying jaguar alebrije, will push them over the edge. Adult viewers will be entirely transfixed by the visuals and have the added bonus of whip-smart gags and cameos to enjoy throughout the film. Frida Kahlo steadfastly supervising performance art in the Land of the Dead is one of many jokes that will sail over kids’ heads but had me howling with laughter.

Bursting with bold colors and packing an emotional punch in the final moments that could make even the most jaded among you shed a tear, “Coco” is truly transcendent.

While not included in our local press screening, a new 21-minute short film entitled “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” will screen theatrically with “Coco.” It reunites Olaf, Anna, Elsa and Kristoff from the 2013 film “Frozen.” Nothing will replace “Let It Go” in your heart, but this is supposed to feature four new songs.