Featuring her brave great-grandson, Miguel.
At around this same time last year, I remember a story circulating online about a daughter taking her father to see Rogue One, the most recent film in the expanding Star Wars saga. Her father, who spoke with a rich Mexican accent, noticed that one of the film’s leads Diego Luna also spoke with a thick accent. Her father asked how well the film was received. She said the film was the second highest-grossing movie of 2016, it opened up to critical acclaim, and fans of all ages loved the characters, especially Diego Luna’s Cassian. “My dad was so happy,” she wrote. “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America.”
I start my review of Coco describing this to show you how films like this can be so important to some people even before they watch the opening credits roll. Coco is a delightful film; colorful, vibrant, and joyous in celebrating Mexican culture and how meaningful it is to the people who represent it. I admittedly know very little about Día de los Muertos (indeed, I struggle to even pronounce it correctly), but I do have friends who celebrate it. When they talk about it, their eyes light up like the candles they leave out for their ancestors during la ofrenda. I can only think of one other time where their eyes might light up as much, and that is while they’re watching Coco.
Following a very large family in the small town of Santa Cecilia, Coco tells the story of the Riveras, a family whose history feels as long as Día de los Muertos itself does. A long time ago, Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) and her daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is abandoned by her husband to become a musician. Heartbroken by his unfaithfulness, Imelda bans music in her family and opens a shoemaking business, which does so well that it ends up passing from generation to generation.
Enter modern-day Santa Cecilia to Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of the Rivera family. A 12-year-old with dreams as big as his great-great-grandfather’s, Miguel loves music and wants to one day become a musician himself. His family, however, wants him to instead involve himself in their growing business, eventually to become a shoemaker himself. After one circumstance leads to another, Miguel finds himself in Tierra de los Muertos: the land of the dead. Now Miguel has to find a way back home to his family through the power of his guitar and his voice.
Every time I watch one of Pixar’s films, I constantly find myself impressed with what they visually do with the material set at their feet. Last year’s Finding Dory returned us to the sea, immersing us in this landscape of beautiful hues of blue and green, while the previous year’s Inside Out lit up a child’s mind like a McDonald’s Play Place. And yet, Coco remains to be the most visually splendid, lighting up the screen in warm, bright oranges, yellows, and reds as it paints an Autumn-esque vision of the land of the dead. Even in the first frame where we get a wide shot of the realm, I caught myself catching my breath as I watched Miguel doing the same thing while staring starry-eyed at his surroundings. I keep going into Pixar’s movies waiting to get disappointed by the animation. I’m still waiting.
And the music is surprisingly a standout element in the film, not just playing aimlessly in the background, but also serving as an emotional catharsis for the characters, their feelings and expressions. This makes sense since the film is based so much around Miguel’s musical ambitions. Still, I’m impressed at how well it’s done here. Of all of the biggest moments I remember from the film, all of them have something to do with singing and music. Miguel’s rendition of “Un Poco Loco.” Mama Imelda’s cover of “La Llorona.” Even the film’s lead single “Remember Me” nearly brought me to tears. All of it serves not only as a respectful homage to Mexican culture, but also as a deeper means of communication between the characters and their family. Musicals are often an overused cliché in most animated movies. Yet, Coco feels right at home in this stylistic choice.
As always, the biggest problems come in with the third act, which just has to catapult our heroes through pompous over-the-top action sequences that do nothing to raise the stakes or make characters’ actions feel more urgent. Yet, I was surprised to find conveniences in Coco’s third act that I would normally expect to find in another animated studio’s films, say, DreamWorks. The climax involves a series of coincidences that feel silly and removed, misplaced in a movie filled with such phenomenal visual and emotional ambition. I won’t give away what happens out of respect to my readers, but I will pose some rhetorical questions to you, such as:
If you’re surrounded by two alebrije that can fly, doesn’t it make the threat of falling seem less ominous?
If you’re a skeleton that can separate your bones, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to, oh, I don’t know, break away from an attacker?
And if you’re caught in the middle of a stage and are being chased by the bad guy’s goons, wouldn’t your first instinct be to GET OFF THE STAGE instead of breaking out into song and dance like you’re Selena Quintanilla?
The first two acts matched the storytelling and technical expertise that Pixar is well-known for. The third act takes it a drastic step back to being nearly generic. A shame of course, but not surprising. After all, many American audiences prefer pointlessly action-packed climaxes as opposed to more emotionally grounded and meaningful ones. Do these problems speak more to the filmmaker’s flaws or to us as viewers?
Still, for all of its contrivances, Coco remains to be emotionally and visually special: certainly one of the most unique films of the year, and one that does the Día de los Muertos culture justice. Pixar is all about inspiring their audiences with the stories they tell and the characters they create. Here is a wonderful Mexican fable where our young hero learns just how important our family history is and how our ignorance to it can lead to bigger problems. We could all learn a thing or two from Miguel, as well as his sweet Great-Grand-Mama Coco.