A couple of Oscars, a Bafta, a Golden Globe and more down the line, and in my continuing quest to see more Oscar-winning films before (or only very shortly thereafter) the awards than I’ve ever done before, I finally got around to seeing Coco, which won best animated feature and best original song when the Academy announced handed out the gongs at last Sunday’s jamboree.
A Disney-Pixar production, directed by Lee Unkrich and with a screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, it’s been hailed since opening – and not least for the respect the film shows to Mexican culture.
Premiering in Mexico at the Morelia International Film Festival last October, it opened in in the country a few days later, the weekend before Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
Ninety-six years before the main action takes place, Imelda Rivera, the wife of a musician and with a three-year-old daughter, Coco, is left at home by her husband, who is pursuing his musical dreams. When he doesn’t return, she starts a shoemaking business that, almost a century later, has become a thriving family business.
But Imelda also laid down an edict, stringently enforced all these decades later by her own granddaughter, Elena, to ban music from the home.
Yet for all her efforts, Elena’s own grandson, 12-year-old Miguel, dreams of becoming a musician and has secretly taught himself to play a guitar from old black and white film footage of his idol, Ernesto.
On Día de Muertos, the boy uncovers an old picture that convinces him that Ernesto was actually his own great-great-grandfather. After Imelda destroys his own hand-made guitar, Miguel heads to the cemetery to see if he can steal the guitar from Ernesto’s mausoleum so that he can compete in a festive talent contest. But his attempt renders him invisible to everyone, except his street dog friend Dante and his own skeletal dead relatives, who take him to the Land of the Dead.
How can he get home and will he be banned from playing music or not?
Sumptuous to look at – and at times it’s actually difficult to remember this is not live action – Coco works on so many levels. Obviously primarily aimed at children, it’s a sensitive way of introducing themes of death and memory. Yet there is plenty to keep the grown-ups fully engaged.
It never falls into sentimentality, though is genuinely moving. The voice performances are excellent – not least Anthony Gonzalez, the 13-year-old playing Miguel. And it’s worth noting that the cast, barring one small character, all hail from Latin, indigenous or mixed backgrounds.
Coco is a joy – close, if not an equal to Pixar’s wonderful Up! and, despite it’s subject matter, every bit as life affirming.
And there is certain piquancy to the fact that, at a time when the resident of the White House behaves in such an undiplomatic, aggressive and arrogant way towards the USA’s southern neighbour, a film created in the US, showing great respect for Mexican culture, has become that country’s biggest-grossing picture ever. Perhaps 45 could learn something from that.