The answer to the mystery of the movie is in the name, but don’t let your sleuthing hinder fully embracing this imaginative journey into the Diá de Muertos traditions and a boy’s search for his great-great grandfather.
Growing up in Southern California near the Mexican border, it is hard to imagine a Mexican or Mexican American family that doesn’t love two things: Shoes and music. In the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia (the patron saint of musicians), 12-year-old Miguel Riviera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) idolizes singer-songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt with Antonio Sol as the singing voice for all songs except “Remember Me”) who died tragically during a big extravaganza, crushed by a bell.
Miguel’s great-great grandfather deserted his wife Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) to pursue a career in music. Mamá Imelda taught herself how to make shoes but begins a tradition that is currently enforced by Abuelita (Renée Victor)–a total ban on music in a household devoted to shoes. Yet music calls to Miguel who, through an accident involving the faceless photo of his great-great-grandfather on the ofrenda, Miguel believes that music is his destiny and his hero Ernesto de la Cruz is his great-great-grandfather.
Determined to enter the village talent show, even after his Abuelita (literally grandma) destroys the guitar he had secretly made and practiced on, Miguel decides to “borrow” the fancy guitar kept in a mausoleum dedicated to Ernesto de la Cruz. Strumming the guitar turns him into a phantom that isn’t dead, but can only be seen by the skeletal dead and dogs, in this case the stray dog Dante whom he had befriended.
The dead must go through a type of customs department before they can cross the bridge made of Aztec marigold petals. Only if their ancestors have put their photos up on an ofrenda will they be allowed to cross. This year, Mamá Imelda indignantly finds that she is barred from crossing, unlike the rest of the family while another man, Hector, has taken to using disguises in his attempt to cross and visit his daughter. When Miguel’s extended family, including Mamá Imelda take him to the head of the afterlife immigration and learn that Miguel has until dawn to leave the land of the dead for the land of the living or he will become one of the skeletal denizens. In order to do so, he must get the blessing of a blood relative on a marigold petal, but Mamá Imelda insist on the condition that Miguel give up music. Miguel with Dante set out to find his great-great-grandfather for a blessing, enlisting the trickster Hector to get to the grand digs of Ernesto de la Cruz, whom Hector claims to know.
Along this musical journey you’ll meet spirit animals (alebrije) like Pepita, but, as it turns out, in the land of the dead, Dante is an alebrije. Alebrije were actually first created in the 1930s by Pedro Linares and are colorful, fantastical animals. Pepita means pumpkin seed.
Another word worth knowing is grito (yell) or grito mexicano which is a traditional yell used to assert joy.
“Coco” is first-rate family entertainment, wrapped in a colorful mariachi-influenced package. Screenplay writesr Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich along with story writers Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz, know just how to pull our heart strings and play them like a virtuoso conductor. Unkrich directs. “Remember Me” doesn’t have the same diva-ready melody as Frozen’s “Let It Go,” but in its various renditions serves the story well.
This is a real tearjerker animated feature that embraces shoes, dogs and music–three things I love. There’s something comforting about remembering your family and believing that on one day a year, you’ll meet again and be remembered by them. This is a great movie to prepare you for family obligations during the holidays and may make you want to begin your celebrations on Día de Muertos instead of waiting for Thanksgiving.