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Film review: ‘Coco’

KIRK MICHAEL,

The abiding charm of Pixar’s “Coco” is apparent from its title sequence, a brilliant family history told entirely through animated papel picado, the multi-colored paper flags often hung for celebrations in Latino communities. They show us the story of the Riveras, a clan of strong women who have, for four generations, built a cobbling empire to distance themselves from a patriarch who once left the family to chase his musical dreams.

Still stung by that guitar-strumming man, Rivera elders Abuelita Elena (Renee Victor) and Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) impose a family-wide ban on musicians. As such, our 12-year-old protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) must hide his obsession with playing romantic ballads. Dante, a long-tongued Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog) that is perfectly described as “a sausage dropped on the barbershop floor,” is the only keeper of Miguel’s musical secret.

The film is centered on the tremendous iconographic power of the Day of the Dead, in which the living make offerings to the deceased, who can, for one night only, cross over to visit those of us still in the flesh. Atop the marigold-littered Rivera ofrenda (the alter containing offerings to the dead) is a picture of that wayward singer… with his face torn off.

On the night of Dead, Miguel, filled with the twin desires to learn his great-great grandfather’s identity and to play a forbidden guitar, strums once and finds himself transported to a new world, glowing with the orange effervescence of the marigolds.

He’s thrust into the Land of the Dead, and it is nothing short of magnificent — a wild, skeleton-filled waystation for souls, packed with flying trams and floating memories. The visual detail is so deep that it can take your attention off the story at hand.

Because you never escape your ancestors, Miguel immediately runs into Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), the original disgruntled Rivera matriarch, who has the power to send him back to the Land of the Living… but will only do so if he pledges to give up music forever. Her will is enforced by Pepita, a fierce beast like a griffon crossed with some lizard and ram for good measure. Pepita and the other psychedelically-colored alebrijes (animated versions of the Oaxacan folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures) make perfect complements to the orange-tinged darkness of the Land of the Dead.

Escaping the scolding of Imelda and still seeking his ancestor, Miguel meets Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a trickster trying to sneak across into the Land of the Living, who is not above dressing in drag as Frida Kahlo to get the job done. Of all the scene stealers in the afterlife, the real Ms. Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) is the most uproarious, as self-portrait obsessed in death as in life.

But Miguel is more occupied with chasing down Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), perhaps the most celebrated man in the Land of the Dead, an Elvis-level singer and actor seen frequently as the star of black and white films from the golden age of Mexican cinema, and a man Miguel suspects to be his great-great grandad.

Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina do well to turn Pixar away from its recent tendency toward sequels and back to the magical world-building that gave the studio its clout. In one way, “Coco” is a classic journey story about Miguel finding an ancestor. But the more moving stakes are Héctor’s, who will soon disappear from the Land of the Dead if he is forgotten in the Land of the Living.

The songs in the film are mostly English language but the most poignant and plaintive are in Spanish, including a climactic version of the traditional ballad “La Llorona.” Befitting the lyric: “Each time you hear a sad guitar / Know that I’m with you,” the heart-bursting “Coco” sticks in the mind long after the credits roll.