Movie Review: Coco

A cartoon set in the Land of the Dead is actually rather lively

Directed by Lee Unkrich
With (English version) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos

Makers of cartoons have been exploring more diverse settings. The latest offering from computer animation firm Pixar, released by Disney, takes us to Mexico, where a 12-year-old boy named Miguel gets a little too caught up in the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) celebrations.

The idea shares a lot in common with animated Tim Burton films such as Corpse Bride or The Nightmare Before Christmas, but the colors in Coco are vivid and the mood is actually uplifting. There is nothing dark or spooky in the concept of the ancestors coming back for one day.

The Land of the Dead is bright and mostly clean, and the people there have decorated skulls, like the candy alfeñiques sold in Mexico.

The deceased people aren’t scary ghosts bent on doing evil. They are family folk looking forward to a one-day reunion filled with celebrations and fun. Except for the sugar-candy skulls, they are just like living people.

Miguel comes from a long line of shoemakers in a small village. Long ago, one of the family members wanted to pursue his dream to become a musician, but he never returned. The family blamed him for abandoning them, and music has been strictly banned in the family ever since. That man’s daughter, the Coco of the title, is now the ancient great-grandmother of young Miguel.

Since this movie is a musical, obviously fighting back against the music ban plays a big part in the plot. Miguel, of course, wants to play guitar to be like is a hero, a film and record icon who made it big in the days of old black-and-white movies.

Pixar is the studio behind Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL-E and Up. They make multilayered films that kids and parents both can enjoy. Coco keeps up that idea.

The Mexican characters are not rehashes of tired stereotypes, even if the film has a retro look. The characters are well-defined and together they offer a wide array of different people, none of whom fall back on the old Speedy Gonzales cliches and tropes.

A few well-known characters from history such as artist Frida Kahlo turn up in the afterlife as does the comedian Cantinflas. In another scene, the mask of the wrestler El Santo turns up.

In the end credits, there is a large section devoted to cultural consultants who worked on the film, and the credits even urge people to visit an actual library to read more about Mexican traditions. The filmmakers were clearly trying to avoid being accused of misappropriating a few Mexican-looking items and spinning a standard plot around them.

The research and attention to detail paid off. Much of the story deals with ofrendas, family altars to ancestors with flowers, candles, photos and personal items.

The path to the Land of the Dead is strewn with marigold leaves, which also play into the plot. Spirit animals also add color, and what is a cartoon without some animals?

This all comes together to create a new vision of Mexico, and a story based on family ties across generations.

There is a bit of thriller and conspiracy plot as well, which creates another layer of suspense.

Coco has been nominated for many awards and has won several already including Best Animated Feature Film at both the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Movie Awards, among other prizes. It also has several nominations and wins for the song “Remember Me.”

The Czech dubbed version has different songs than in the English version. The film is also different in the Czech version. The opening and closing credits have Czech words in the style of the cartoon’s animation. The main part of the film has several signs and items with a Czech text. A phonograph record is an important prop, and the title on the record matches the Czech version of the song. Other words and phrases that are key to the plot also appear in Czech when they are written out.

The film is shown with a short. Olaf's Frozen Adventure features characters from Frozen in a mediocre tale about Christmas traditions that takes too long to say very little. The timing is also bad, as Christmas is over, and people are already looking forward to Valentine’s Day and Mardis Gras.

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