Who You Really Are (You Knew All Along)

Coco a film by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina.  With Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach.  *****

I went to this movie as an act of desperation.  Every day I read in the New York Times about the marvelous movies that are arriving for the holiday season and the great reviews they’ve gotten, and every weekend I look at the listings and see the same old things.  I’ve seen Lady Bird and Three Billboards.  They were great.  I’m waiting for the holiday movies, but they keep not getting here.

I also must admit that I have a prejudice against children’s movies and animation in general.  My knee-jerk reaction is that I want to see a movie that is “real” (whatever that is), despite any number of good experiences watching animation with my grandchildren and even just with my wife, who doesn’t share my prejudices.  Maybe Coco will get me over the hump.

It’s a marvelous movie!  Great story line, beautiful scenes of a Mexican town, a wonderful appreciation of Mexican culture.  And the animation itself: every time I see good animation I’m stunned.  I don’t know how people do this.  It’s like reality but it’s also like a cartoon.  It’s better than reality.  It’s the filmic equivalent of Magic Realism.

Miguel is a boy who lives in a family of shoemakers that hates music.  It may not be that everyone really hates it, only Mama Imelda (Miguel’s grandmother) whose own mother, Mama Coco, was abandoned as a child by a father who went off to become a musician.  Her life was supposedly ruined by this event, though she seems to have done all right, and is still around, plump and wrinkled and sitting in a wheelchair, her mind almost gone.  Miguel has an undeniable feeling that he doesn’t belong in this family, because he loves music and longs to become a musician.  His fight with the whole family over this situation is the basis for the plot.

In a way it is that age-old story, actually a fantasy of many children, that they have been born into the wrong family.  The story is a gradual discovery that he’s in the right family, where he was meant to be: that’s the story of all human growth.  This is also a movie about family, perhaps one that could only take place in a Latino family, where multiple generations still live together in one place, in a town that looks run-down but seems to have everything they need.  It’s a little paradise in a way, a place where they can all be together and love each other, even if loving sometimes means fighting with and hurting one another.

It’s also, in a fairy tale kind of way, a movie about death.

That’s because it takes place on The Day of the Dead, the evening every autumn when families create altars and put out offerings for the spirits of family members to return.  There is a talent show that night where Miguel is hoping to prove to the family that he is a musician and should be allowed to pursue his dream.  His only problem is that his grandmother has found his guitar and, in a fit of anger, smashed it.  He has to find another one.  He finally does so at a shrine to Mexico’s most beloved musician, Ernesto de la Cruz.

Miguel’s act of thievery transmits him somehow to the spirit world, the place from which all the family members will be coming that night.  He has another whole family there, all of whom know him—from their previous visits—and all of whom he knows, because of the family shrine and the stories he’s been told.  He believes he needs to find the spirit of Ernesto de la Cruz, who can justify his love of music.  On the way he runs into a stumblebum musician named Hector who claims to know de la Cruz, and who is willing to help.  For a favor.

Spirits can only return on the Day of the Dead (actually the night of the Day) if their photos are on someone’s altar.  There is a kind of immigration office which checks up on such things.  And spirits only stay alive as long as someone remembers them.  After that, they disappear.  No one knows what happens to them.  Hector is desperate to get his photo on an altar, and to contact one living person while he is still, even a little bit, remembered.  He seems to be a con-man, and an impediment to Miguel.  He turns out to be anything but that.

I don’t know where this story came from (on the IMDb website, it is credited to four different people (?), only one of whom has a Mexican background).  It is a classic story that is worthy to be set beside the greatest fairy tales.  It creates a whole mythology about life, death, and family which—though it is obviously fantasy—rings true.  The way it ends seems profoundly true as well.  It’s the story of a boy discovering who he really is, which turns out to be what he thought he was all along.  He needed to trust what he deeply believed.

I’ve been talking the movie up ever since I saw it.  I can’t believe I almost didn’t see it.  It’s once again made me a believer about animation.  And it helped me see that some children’s stories far transcend what they seem to be about.  They speak to the parents too.