Rated PG.. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Honor your father and your mother…
Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;
help me when you deliver them;
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
If you enjoyed The Book of Life, director/writer Jorge R. Gutierrez’s 2014 animated film about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), you will also enjoy the new Pixar/Disney film that transports us into the same realm. For reasons unclear to me the film is not named after its young hero Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy living with his shoe-making family in the town of Santa Cecilia, Mexico, but his great grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach)
A feisty woman abandoned by her husband when he left her to pursue a musical career, she had begun the family heritage of hatred of music. Now a doting old woman whom our hero loves, he nevertheless dreams of becoming a famous musician just like his idol, the late, famous musician and movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel has taught himself how to play on his home-made guitar and now secretly intends to try out at the upcoming talent contest during The Day of the Dead celebration. However, his grandmother (Renee Victor), discovering his stash of music and instrument, smashes the guitar, leaving the boy so heartbroken and desperate that he breaks into the shrine dedicated to the deceased Ernesto de la Cruz and steals the great man’s guitar.
Miguel’s break-in leads to life-changing consequences, one of which is that by strumming the celebrity’s guitar he has been transported to the realm of the dead. He cannot be seen by the living, but is very much visible to the dead, many of whom are moving among the villagers. On the Day of the Dead those who are still remembered by the living can pass over a bridge made from thousands of brilliant, shimmering marigold petals. To do so first, however, they must be interrogated by a Customs agent who checks that there is a photo of the deceased on a family mantle, thus proving that the person is truly remembered. Hence, the film’s signature song that we hear twice, “Remember Me.” (Which, ironically, is not that memorable.)
Miguel’s quest in the realm of the dead is a treat to behold, and fraught with danger, for if the boy cannot fulfill his quest by the next day, he will become dead himself—and the one from whom he seeks forgiveness and a blessing insists that he must give up his dream of a musical career. How, with the help of a denizen of the street named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who turns out to be a surprise later, the boy is able to fulfill his mission adds up to a lot of merriment and excitement.
The film pays due respect to Mexican culture (as well it should, in view of the outrage the Disney people elicited from the Mexican-American community when they tried to trademark the name of the holiday). The subject might seem a bit macabre for children, but the light touch, evidenced by the music and dancing, probably will not evoke nightmares, and it will inform many children of the importance of this day in which Mexicans pay honor to their ancestors.
Miguel’s dilemma of honoring his parents while wanting to do something that is against their wishes is an often-treated theme in film, going way back to the first talkie in which Al Jolson played a rabbi’s son who wanted to become a singer despite his father’s desires. We see in the new film that it takes love and understanding to bring the two opposing views together.
The theme of remembering is also very important, especially with the grim result of a person not being remembered by any of the living being oblivion. Remembering is central to the beliefs of people of faith. The major celebration of Jews and Christians involves remembering the great events of the Exodus and of the Last Supper of Christ. However, for believers their continued existence depends upon God, not some human relative remembering us.
Director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina, working with a veritable army of animators/technicians, have made the Pixar contingent of characters more diverse, even as last year the parent Disney studio’s Moana released an animated film about a brave Polynesian—and a female one at that! 2016 also saw Focus Features release of Kubo and the Two Strings about a young musician dealing with Japanese mythical creatures. This is a good time for parents wanting to introduce their children to multiculturalism.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.