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'Coco' is a gorgeous, touching animated adventure for the whole family

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Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina co-direct this animated adventure-comedy written by the directors and Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich, about Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring musician from a family in which music is banned. Miguel is swept into the Land of the Dead and meets his forebears in this film that explores the Mexican tradition of el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. (109 min.)

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN After accidently crossing over to the Land of the Dead, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, center) gets help from his deceased family members to return to the land of the living. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIO AND WALT DISNEY PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Pixar Animation Studio And Walt Disney Pictures
  • GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN After accidently crossing over to the Land of the Dead, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, center) gets help from his deceased family members to return to the land of the living.

Glen This colorful, eye-popping film acts as a perfect starter course to understanding the Mexican culture's deeply held importance of family—not only the close familial ties among generations but also the expectations of adhering to tradition and respecting authority. It's also the clearest explanation of the Day of the Dead that I've seen, explaining the ideas behind the altar-like shrines, or ofrendas, where deceased loved ones' photos are placed along with items (offerings) they valued when alive. Once a year, the dead can come visit the living ... as long as they're still remembered with an ofrenda. The central conceit of the film is that those in the Land of the Dead can disappear forever if they're completely forgotten by the living. The more surface plot is about Miguel's deep love of music and the mystery behind his family's ban. Miguel's family members are shoemakers and have been for many generations. It's a noble tradition, but Miguel's love of music leads him to rebel—and worse, in an effort to play in a music contest, he steals a guitar from the grave of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the greatest mariachi in history, which leads to his crossing over to the Land of the Dead. If he doesn't find a way back by sunrise, he'll remain there. He's befriended by Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who is at risk of being forgotten forever, so Héctor agrees to help Miguel return to the living in exchange for Miguel bringing his photo back and placing it on an ofrenda, all because Héctor wants to visit his aging daughter one more time during the Day of the Dead. I might be making it sound more complicated than it is, but the film is crystal clear, thoroughly entertaining, and heartwarming as heck. I haven't been this charmed by an animated film since Up (2009).

Anna Miguel's great-grandma, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), is the eldest matriarch in his family and the daughter of Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach). Imelda banished music from the lives of her family after her husband left her alone with young Coco to pursue a career in mariachi. Miguel is secretly a major fanboy of the late Ernesto de la Cruz, having his own shrine to the man hidden away from his family and a scrappy handmade guitar painted to look like the one in Cruz's mausoleum. Mama Coco is ancient and senile, but her daughter, Miguel's Abuelita (Renee Victor), strictly carries forth the "no music" rule, chasing him with her shoe when he shows interest in the local mariachis. It isn't until the photo of Mamá Imelda, Coco, and his mysterious unknown great-grandfather (whose face has been torn and most of his body folded out of frame) breaks thanks to Miguel's street dog friend named Dante that he discovers Cruz's guitar and his grandfather's are one and the same. Wonderfully full of color and life, arguably even more so in the Land of the Dead than the living, this is a heartwarming adventure and a perfect family treat. It's always a huge score for parents when they can actually enjoy the movies with their kids, and Coco hits that sweet spot dead on.

Glen It truly is a great family film with a great message, and it has some twists and turns I didn't see coming. It certainly shows how miscommunication, bad luck, and intractability conspire to hurt relationships, and like any good family film, lessons are learned, compromises are made, and bonds are strengthened. In addition to the kaleidoscopic animation and wonderfully rendered characters, the voice work is first rate, and despite Miguel's family ban on music, the film is filled with boisterous, life-affirming songs. Even though death seems like a macabre subject for kids, the Day of the Dead holiday isn't about ghosts or scares but instead about honoring one's ancestors. American culture doesn't often embrace multigenerationalism. In fact, it's quite rare for American families to live with three or more generations in one home, but it's very common in Mexico, and in Coco, that's a beautiful thing. Instead of packing grandma away to an old folks home, she's there as a connection to the past, to offer love and wisdom. Coco really is a love letter to the Mexican culture. I won't be one bit surprised if this wins Best Animated Feature at next year's Academy Awards. It deserves it!

Anna I agree; it's definitely a frontrunner as far as I'm concerned for 2017 Oscar wins in the animated category. The music is wonderful, adding another layer to the richness built by the animators and writers. Death is handled in a way that to me seems appropriate even for fairly young children—the idea of family still living in another world and still coming to visit once a year is sweetly comforting. The film is not without its villain, though, and the filmmakers adeptly kept their adult audience engaged by not making plot twists and character betrayals/loyalties too obvious. They've managed to build a charming and relatable other world, but also a home in our world worth returning to. Everyone gets to learn something in this film, whether it is Miguel seeing that people are not always who you think they are, Hector learning that ancient mistakes still deserve apologies, or Abuelita realizing that being an overprotective matriarch doesn't mean you're right 100 percent of the time. Bottom line, it's a family film all about what it means to be a family, and that means loving each other—music-making warts and all. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.


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