Regular readers know that I love the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos (previously here), and I always observe it here on my blog, but also in real life. I create an ofrenda in my home, and I am lucky enough to live near San Francisco which is home to the largest Día de los Muertos celebration outside of Mexico (a street parade with drumming and dancing attracts thousands of people who dress up in traditional skull face paint and costumes while nearby Garfield Park is home to many altars honoring the lives of friends and family members...some altars invite people to participate by adding photos of lost loved ones). It has been a part of my life for so long that I forget there are places in the United States--and the rest of the world--who have not been lucky enough to be near a Latin culture and who have not experienced the sense of what Día de los Muertos is.
If you are not familiar with it, Día de los Muertos (it is actually a three-day observation: October 31st, the first day, is for people who died by their own hand, the next day is November 1st and is reserved for the observation and celebration of the short lives of children who died, and the final day, November 2nd is the widely observed, main feast day) is a joyous, upbeat holiday originating in Mexico but now widely celebrated here in the United States. It is a day to celebrate and remember ancestors and departed loved ones. Altars are created in homes that feature pictures of dead loved ones along with favorite objects and food they liked when they were alive (called ofrenda or offerings), decorated sugar skulls, imagery of skeletons and calacas (a figure of a skull or a skeleton), colorful paper cut-outs, candles, and copious amounts of marigolds.
Families go to cemeteries to tend to family plots, gravesides, and tombs. There is a carnival-like atmosphere in Mexico as huge crowds descend upon cemeteries on November 2nd to hold all night vigils and cook food not only for themselves but also for the spirits of the departed who can visit this earthly realm one night a year. Old women sit in chairs by the graves while children run and play tag, musicians play and sing, and people sit and talk with family members, both living and dead. It is not a morbid or spooky celebration at all but a colorful, exciting, joyous time filled with love and life despite being about death. Each culture has its own way of viewing and responding to death. Our Western culture in the United States does not deal well with either the reality or even the concept of death...it makes most of us uncomfortable, nervous, scared...for so many reasons. It is something that is kept away from and apart from us despite being another phase of life itself. So we do everyone a disservice by not being able to participate in it: it is a disservice to the ones who are dying, the ones who are left, and to ourselves. Keeping thoughts and feelings away during a time of such cosmic transition creates a split, a schism, one that makes accepting the death of a loved one even more difficult.
So kudos to Pixar on many levels: for taking on a project that portrays death and grief not as something dark and heavy but as light and joyous; for taking on a project that portrays a culture that is, considering the Monster-in-chief and his current administration, very hostile to Latin cultures; and for taking on a project portraying a differing culture at all in a day and age where the accusation of "cultural appropriation" can fly at any moment for the slightest, perceived infraction (there actually was a bump in the road during production when, in 2013 when the original title of the film was "Día de los Muertos," Disney tried to copyright the phrase but was met with a backlash...and I agree that was a step too far and apparently so did Disney as they withdrew the application and said the name of the film would be changing). The makers of this film spent a few years researching the topic, and the culture, making trips to Mexico to visit many actual Día de los Muertos celebraations to get at the true essence of it all. And their take-away was: family. When it is all boiled down, the connection that holds it all together is family. Our ancestors, those who came before, whether related by blood or not. Those who touched our lives and who are not here anymore. So we honor them and continue to love them by placing their photo on the altar and remembering them in a way that would have pleased them: with love.
No spoilers: In a little village somewhere in Mexico, a little boy, Miguel, is born into a family of shoe makers. Music is forbidden in this family and we soon discover why: his great great grandfather left his family to become a singer and musician, one of the most famous in all of Mexican history. For that abandonment, the idea of music itself is punished since it is seen as an evil force that would make a man leave his family forever. But poor Miguel LOVES music, CRAVES music, and wants to PLAY music. This conflict is the crux of our story and what propels Miguel to suddenly, by a strange confluence of occurrences, cross over into the Land of the Dead on the only night such a thing is possible: Día de los Muertos of course. He meets his ancestors but also makes some new friends along the way on his quest to become a musician but also to return to the Land of the Living before he is trapped on the other side forever.
First, I have to say how gorgeous and SUMPTUOUS this film is, a true feast for the eyes. It reminds me so much of the first times I came into contact with Día de los Muertos celebrations, how brightly colored it all is, a riot of color really and the overwhelming orange background for everything that comes from the ever-present marigolds. The ofrendas are exquisitely rendered. Well, in fact, the entire film is rendered beautifully: some of the backgrounds--hillsides, villages--are totally convincing. CG has come a long way in a short period of time, and we are now capable of creating images that duplicate reality. I find it cute however that the characters of such films, including our characters at hand, are still deliberately made to look like cartoons with sweetly exaggerated faces. But the real treat here is the look of the ones who populate the Land of the Dead: they are all designed to look like the kind of decorated and embellished skeletons and skulls seen during Día de los Muertos. Their faces are wonderfully scribed with florals and curlicues and dots.
And since music is such a huge part of the story, we are treated to mariachi music, some new songs in an old style, and some excellent voices including Anthony Gonzalez as our hero Miguel and Allana Ubach as Mama Imelda.
Recommend? Yes, especially if you are unfamiliar with Día de los Muertos and the culture around it!