Movie Review: Coco

One of the most popular gifts for adults this holiday season was a home DNA analysis kit. Strangely, many of these kits are not available to Hong Kong residents, though I’ve heard reports of people getting theirs through friends and family who live in countries that do have it available it to them. I suppose in such cases one would have to send his specimen back to those people for onward processing. “Would you mind looking after my spit for me?” Anyhow, genealogy is a booming industry with millions of people around the world eager to find out if they are related to royalty. Maybe they’re hoping to score an invitation to Prince Harry and Meagan Markle’s upcoming wedding if there’s a match. Although I haven’t succumbed to curiosity, I am an amateur genealogist, researching the family histories of the forebears of my community here. We have about 380 people buried in our cemetery and the vast majority of them have been forgotten by their families. By uncovering what these people did for a living, who they married or didn’t marry, who their children and grandchildren were, and what their contribution was to our community and our city, I hope to give them a bit of life. I don’t believe that someone’s time on Earth should simply be summed up as the date they were born and the date they died. Happily, I can report that I’ve uncovered quite a lot over the years and I’ve even introduced a few family branches to each other.

So why am I mentioning dead people? Because they’re the focus of Pixar’s latest animated film, COCO. The Mexicans have a holiday called Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where family and friends get together to pray for and remember their ancestors who have died, and help support them on their spiritual journey. (It should be noted that many cultures have a similar holiday. The Chinese, for example, have Ghost Month.) Day of the Dead is a very colourful affair with family altars decked out with marigolds, and prepared foods and drinks surrounding photos of the dead. For 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), this year’s Day of the Dead is a bit problematic. Decades earlier, his great-grandfather left his great-grandmother and young daughter, Coco, to pursue a career in music. Since that time, music has been banned in the Rivera family and now they are well known in their town for shoemaking. Miguel, however, doesn’t see his future in footwear and he secretly dreams of becoming a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt, DOCTOR STRANGE), a popular actor and singer of his great-grandmother’s generation. After stealing Ernesto’s guitar so that he can use it to perform in the town’s talent show, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead along with his wiener dog, Dante. Learning that he must return to the Land of the Living before sunrise or be stuck there forever, he enlists the help of a trickster, Héctor Rivera (voiced by Gael García Bernal, NERUDA), to find Ernesto, whom the boy believes is Coco’s father and the only one who can remove the curse of the guitar.

Who would have thought that an animated film about dead people could be so charming? Certainly, not me! But COCO is from the same company that made films about fulfilling a promise made to someone who died years before (UP), a fish with a physical disability (FINDING NEMO) and a pre-teen who has emotional issues (INSIDE OUT). Admittedly, COCO follows a well-worn path that Pixar has travelled many times before but this is one fantastic voyage that may have you reaching for a tissue at least once. The film’s all-Latino voice cast is wonderful, bringing complete authenticity to their characters. The animation is perhaps the best we’ve ever seen (would we expect anything less from Pixar?), with subtle character movement, rich detail and vibrant colouring. Quite humorously, the entrance to the Land of the Dead looks suspiciously like the entrance to Disneyland. All of the Land of the Dead, in fact, looks like a trippy theme park complete with skull-shaped fireworks and other bony motifs. Not surprisingly, the songs, penned by Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez (FROZEN) and Michael Giacchino (UP), are all delightful. My only disappointment here is that none of them is in Spanish.

Interestingly, what we learn from this film is that there is both life and death in the afterlife. As Héctor tells Miguel, “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear.” That line really hit home with me because of the research work I do for our community. I’m sure others who do genealogy would agree with that sentiment.

Go see COCO and bring along some Kleenex!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, December 28th at 8:30 am HK time!

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