COCO. US, 2017, 105 minutes, Colour. Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Alpfnso Arau, Ana Ofelia Murguia. Directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina.
For more than 20 years, Pixar studios, now owned by Disney, have been producing at least one animated film year, many of them winning awards, including Oscars. Sometimes they venture into repeat material like the Toy Story franchise or the Cars franchise. Sometimes they parody popular films of the time like The Invincibles (and 2018 The Invincibles 2). Sometimes they are very inventive as with the psychological comedy, Inside Out.
This one is for the wide American audience, especially the Hispanic American audience, the setting being Mexico, the film drawing on old traditions, especially the Day of the Dead, veneration for the ancestors, rituals and beliefs that have very little to do with the Catholic tradition (although once there is a glimpse of Our Lady of Guadalupe), a mythical, fairy-tale vision of the afterlife.
The advertising features a young boy who loves music, plays a guitar, who belongs to a family with the tradition of being anti-music, the great grandfather, allegedly, having run off to be a success as a musician and never coming back to his family. Their resentment has led to a business enterprise making shoes and, for generations, they have been very successful. The little boy is not Coco. He is a Miguel, who defies his family, enrols in a music competition in the square where he polishes shoes, has his guitar smashed by his harridan of a grandmother and decides to go to the mausoleum to borrow the guitar seen in the torn photo of his ancestors, the runaway father missing.
The whole family, and the audience, assume that the missing member of the photo is the celebrity singer-actor, Ernesto. We get the full treatment of Ernesto’s career, his songs, his movies (including a singing cowboy and an earnest adviser-priest). And his doom, crushed by a bell.
But, with this dark underlying theme of family abandonment and successful career, there is a good dramatic twist which a review should not spoil.
The last part of the film takes place in the land of the dead, something like a giant fiesta, with the dead as skeletons, yet dressed in all the traditional Mexican styles. Ernesto is one of the stars in the land, a massive crowd for his anniversary show (televised and video recorded in this mysterious dead land). Miguel find himself in the land, coming across various relations, encountering a rather wistful songwriter called Hector. And Miguel dog, Dante, is transformed into one of the rather lively dead.
She was the little daughter of the father who disappeared, who sang his songs to her. She is now an old lady, moving towards dementia. She has one longing to see her father and sing with him again.
How this can happen, even happily, means that audiences will have to see the film!
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.