Overview: Miguel Rivera chases his dreams to be a musician and winds up in the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos. 2017; Rated G; Walt Disney Motion Pictures; 109 minutes.
La Llorona: Día de Muertos is a holiday about life. It may be honoring those who passed on, but its roots are firmly planted in celebrating what was left behind and the lives they’ve lived. The guiding force of Coco is in memories of those held dear and the exploration of familial legacy while building one’s own.
The narrative is a familiar one to Pixar loyalists. An odd pairing of characters are stuck together for a journey where they both discover something about themselves. Though, where contemporary animated family films frequently falter in the execution, Coco uses a familiar story and allows its visuals and character action to make every emotional beat land. It’s subtle when you think it isn’t. Like the tightening of a guitar string, emotion builds and builds so that by the end, it plays a beautiful song that is sure to make the waterworks flow aplenty.
First off, the pairing is less about individuals, but rather a tale of Miguel’s desire to follow his passion. Miguel’s family has no patience for music or musicians (a downright blaspheme if there ever was one in a Mexican household) but they make a good, honest living in the community. But Miguel’s heart isn’t fully aligned with his familia’s. Ernesto de la Cruz, the most renowned musician in the history of Mexico in this universe, is the symbol of success and passion to Miguel. In an act of defiance, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s tomb and steals his iconic guitar to play in front of a crowd. Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead, where he runs into a group of deceased family members. It’s beyond touching, watching the distant relatives greet one another, despite not actually having met across multiple generations. It’s here where Coco takes off into the stratosphere of quality. Instead of pairing Miguel with a single companion for his journey, he comes across multiple ones. Each encounter, whether it’s with a single person or a group of them, push Miguel forward in understanding the grand scheme of his true calling in life. Family is forever, indeed.
El Mundo es mi Familia: The holiday is meant to be an uplifting affair. Coco is stunningly realized and a great example of how visual storytelling can surpass almost any narrative form in functionality. In the world of the living mexican roads and towns are strikingly realistic, capturing a look to Mexico not often seen in the American film medium. The warm color palette is welcoming and full of its own history. The characters practically invite you to sing and dance through the streets. As Miguel walks across a floral bridge to the afterlife, imagery is buoyant and tender. Gorgeous neon style blacklight splashes all across the Land of the Dead. Skeletons of the deceased have an ethereal glow in our world, and are cartoonishly realized to be more pleasant on children’s eyes. The creatures in the afterlife, referred to as “spirit guides,” are fluorescent dreams. Neon color highlights them to appear as spiritual fireflies, guiding people to the Land of the Dead.
The “style no substance” complaint leveraged against certain films is often ridiculous (style is substance, pendejos) but Coco employs style on a whole other level. Composing explosive frames of color amongst Mexican culture, Coco doesn’t feel as much as a corporate mandate as much as a genuine project of passion. Not to discredit Lee Unkrich, one of Pixar’s finest director’s whose Toy Story 3 is sure to destroy all heartstrings. Unkrich’s project developed around 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released and with the Pixar team studying Mexican folk art from the region. After a scary instance of Disney attempting to trademark “Día de los Muertos” cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz drew a poster of a Godzilla-sized Mickey Mouse with the tagline “It’s coming to trademark your cultura.” In response, Disney canned the trademark attempt, hired Lalo Alcaraz to consult on the film alongside playwright Octavio Solis and former CEO of Mexican Heritage Corporation Marcela Davison Aviles. From there on out, the group worked with Unkrich to bring a legitimacy and truth to the proceedings.
As a Pixar film, songs are almost a requirement. The songs, all in english, admittedly temper some authenticity in their delivery. That doesn’t stop them from being catchy and well orchestrated. Not to mention emotional evisceration when the last few roll around. However, when the characters interact with one another, Coco is wise enough to bring tangibility to the dialogue. Characters will occasionally swing back and forth between english and spanish (Spanglish) not offering subtitles for anybody outside of the loop. I wish there was more of this to establish it firmly as a film for Mexican audiences first. Shout out to the abuelita and her deadliest ally: la chancla.
Recuérdame: Perhaps the greatest truth Coco has to offer is in how it connects everything under a single idea. It’s commonplace for movies to end with a message of “family is important” but Coco is a movie that doesn’t toss that message to the wind. It builds upon history, culture and individuality through musical set pieces and character dynamics. When it brings it all home in the climax, you’ll feel lucky to have witnessed a tale as beautiful as this. You won’t forget it.