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For many in the western world, the very idea of the deceased coming back to the mortal plane is a terrifying one.  However, in Mexico, El Dia de los Muertos, the return of departed spirits to their loved ones, is cause for much celebration and family gathering in all dimensions.  COCO is the story of one Mexican family’s bonds of togetherness here and in the hereafter.

The Riveras come from a long and honoured line of shoemakers.  From the moment they come into the world, it is taken for granted that the new member of the clan, means an addition to the Rivera workforce.  Tradition makes for ironclad laws in the hardworking family, and to even think of bending those rules will subject the offender to the terrifying scorn of family matriarch, Abuelita Elena.  One such tradition is a complete ban of anything musical in the household or its persons.  This animosity began many years ago when the husband of Mamá Imelda, who founded the shoe dynasty, abandoned his wife and baby daughter, Coco, for a career as a musician.  Since that time, music is anathema, and breaking of the ban punishable by a deadly slipper to the skull.  It is with this chankla hanging over his head that young Miguel secrets away his love of music.

The boy has happy feet and happy fingers: Miguel’s greatest joy is strumming the guitar he has hidden away in a cubbyhole, playing along to old VHS tapes of his long-deceased idol, singing star, Ernesto de la Cruz.  The boy is so good he is actually considering coming out before the whole town at the annual talent contest at risk of a seriously whooped backside.  Miguel’s secret musical stash isn’t the only thing concealed in the Rivera household: While preparing for El Dia del los Muertos, when families erect a shrine – an ofrenda - of photographs of deceased loved ones, the boy finds a clue to his heritage.  A mutilated photo reveals that the scapegrace scion of the Rivera household, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, once played guitar – the same famous instrument that belonged to Miguel’s idol, de la Cruz.  Surely, the connection is obvious?

Sadly, the boy’s own secret is also exposed and his grandmother destroys his precious guitar.  Miguel’s anger at the strict, unreasonable family rule, and his joy at his deduction that he is related to the greatest mariachi or all time, bolsters his resolve to play at the talent show.  In need of a replacement guitar, Miguel - with the aid of Dante, a scroungy street dog pal – sneaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum, with the intention of borrowing the singer’s famous guitar.  Miguel is not prepared for what happens at the moment he first strums de la Cruz’s 6-string; he’s suddenly transformed into one of the spirits so populous during El Dia de los Muertos.  He is invisible to the living, but the spirits and reanimated skeletons of the deceased – and Dante - have no trouble seeing him at all. 

Using this dimensional shift to try to find his famous great-great-grandfather.  Miguel runs into the tight bureaucracy that rules the world of the dead, including the fact that if one’s image is not on the ofrenda of their loved ones, that spirit is not allowed to cross the marigold bridge to enter the living world and spend time in the presence of their families.  

It is the inconceivable possibility of this happening to the revered Mamá Imelda, that first alerts Miguel to the fact that his own ancestors are there in the Land of the Dead, attempting to pass into the living world, as they have done every year for generations.  They recognise Miguel right away, even the ones who passed long before he was born, because they have always watched over him and the rest of the family.  As warm as this unexpected reunion is, Miguel must return to the living world before sunrise, or risk being trapped amongst the spirits as a soul forever.  He also must replace Mamá Imelda’s picture in the family ofrenda.  To do this he needs a blessing from his family member to send him on his way. However, Mamá Imelda’s condition that Miguel must promise to never have anything to do with music again, causes the child to bolt and run right into a spirit who would do anything to get into the living world, despite having no ofrenda with his photo on it.

A gangly and disheveled scammer, Hector promises to help the boy find his other relative, the famous Ernesto del la Cruz, from whom he can also receive the blessing to go home.  Hector encourages Miguel to play his guitar in a local talent contest where the winner has a chance to meet de la Cruz.  Despite helping Miguel make his way through the Land of the Dead, the boy runs away again and decides to try meeting de la Cruz on his own.  Miguel lets his guitar talent speak for him and de la Cruz easily accepts the boy as his blood, but are family connections all that they seem?

COCO is a dazzling display of light, colour and music, illuminating a story as full of heart as it is of laughs.  A joyful celebration of Mexican culture, and the universal love of family.  At the heart of the film is its timeworn tale of following one’s dreams, as Miguel is determined to do.  Another familiar theme is that of the child rebelling against authority; in Miguel’s case, that means generations of Riveras and their traditions.  There is, of course, after great peril and tribulation, Miguel’s realisation of what love and family really mean, while holding on to his own hopes and aspirations.  

What the folks at Pixar have done is to place those tried and true lessons against a long overdue Latino backdrop that shows the great care taken in portraying the culture, its people and beliefs as much more than an animated tourist stop.  As fantastical as our adventure is, Miguel’s living world is grounded in the daily lives and humdrum realities of the Mexico it portrays.  While strict and unbending, the matriarchy of the Rivera household is a family system rarely seen in films live-action and otherwise.  After being left on her own to support herself and her baby daughter, Mamá Imelda’s creation of a successful business out of nothing, and a close-knit, loving family that respects her generations after she’s gone, is downright heroic. 

Another interesting and different aspect to the story is in the spirituality presented wherein the audience is meant to believe in - and even connect with - the living after death.  There’s also the Dia de los Muertos aesthetic of colourful ornamented skeletons as the main characters with whom we are meant to sympathise. (Though, let’s note this aesthetic, the Mexican location, and many of the themes of following one’s dreams were approached in 20th Century Fox’s excellent and stylish {and stylised} THE BOOK OF LIFE.)  It takes a lot of work and personality to make skeletons cuddly or sweet.  

Along with colourful sugar skeletons, there are also the alebrijes; fantastical, luminous, colourful creatures that are spirit beasts or familiars to those in the Land of the Dead, which can range from adorable and magical, or enormous and terrifying.  A stunning image of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations is the lush carpet of orange marigolds that covers the wide path leading to the land of the living, while its thickness can drown those unauthorised spirits trying to sneak in.  The bright neons of the environs of spirits comfortable in the afterlife are in bleak contrast to the muddy outlands of the lonely souls with no one to remember them.  Each end of the otherworldly spectrum is an extreme compared to the adobe-coloured beaming sunshine of Miguel’s small town.

Of its many surprises, the most eye-opening are COCO’s plot twists.  More than once does the tale turn down a road we didn’t see coming, including some dark alleys that the filmmakers don’t shy away from; giving credit to their narrative skills, and their trust in the intelligence of the audience.  Besides the aforementioned tale of abandonment; there is abject betrayal, jealousy, and even murder.  It’s stuff you don’t see in a Pixar movie every day.

How could a movie about a little boy trying to find his song be complete without a superb soundtrack of rousing Mariachi tunes and heartfelt ballads?  Unlike life at home, the Land of the Dead is bursting with song, and it might be a pretty nice place for Miguel to stay if it wasn’t for that whole “dead” thing.  The soundtrack is as vibrant, bracing and authentic as the film itself.  Particularly affecting is de la Cruz’s signature pop hit, “Remember Me,” that began life as a tender lullaby to a beloved child.

COCO is a stunning joy on many levels: Its portrayal and inclusion of Mexican culture is sensitively and carefully rendered, without seeming overweening, shallow, or perfunctory (As has occurred in previous Disney projects).  It’s a true immersion that feels real and grounded in Miguel’s everyday life, even as we enter incredible, fantastic realms.  The visuals and music are spectacular, but what stays with us about COCO long after those thrills, is the deep and loving heart of a family, and the strength of a little boy who won’t give up his dream.

Bravo, Pixar.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov. 22nd, 2017



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