A litany of Disney animated films have explored various cultures. Whether or not they were entirely respectful of those cultures is up for debate, but the one constant up until recently was that neither Disney nor Pixar tackled any aspects of Mexican culture.
I was initially skeptical when Pixar announced it was focusing a film on Dia de Muertos. Not only because that seems to be the only part of Mexican culture films want to draw from, but because Pixar’s newer, stacked release schedule means it usually releases one great film and one less so. As Cars 3 surprised with how effective it was, I feared Cocowould be less Inside Out and more The Good Dinosaur.
Seeing as how the co-director also helped write The Good Dinosaur, you can probably guess how this turned out.
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Coco follows the young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who wants to be a musician just like the famous star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But his strict, shoe making family has banned all music ever since his Great-Great Grandfather left his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and their daughter, the titular Coco. But on Dia de los Muertos, Miguel gets in a fight with his Abuelita (Renee Victor), accidentally removes Coco’s photo from the ofrenda (the traditional offering place of the day of remembrance), steals Ernesto’s famous guitar, and suddenly finds himself in the land of the dead. Together with his new ally Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel has to get back to the land of living while somehow getting permission from his family to be a musician.
Coco makes a strong first impression. Featuring plenty of deep visual cuts for those entrenched in Mexican folklore while being sure not to alienate those who aren’t. It’s definitely one of the more well designed Pixar films to date, especially once the land of the dead is introduced. Flourished with pastels, marigold, and Miguel is pretty damn cute himself (even so far as to include the Mexican centric single dimple and mole). The original songs here are all fantastic as well ranging from ballads to even humorous borracho tunes. Sure it’s a given a Pixar film will be designed and animated well, but it’s still worth noting when they succeed at it as well as they do here. Unfortunately, that beauty is, literally, only skin deep.
Like the many painted candy skulls you’d find during a Dia de Muertos celebration, Coco may have painted its bones with lovely color but it cannot hide what little ingenuity lies therein. Coco‘s plot is incredibly straightforward and predictable which clashes with the art direction’s authenticity. The beats are rote even down to the third act climax (which throws in an unneeded clear-cut villain, natch), which is further complicated by how many murky layers are placed on top of this bare bones story. It’s less forgivable here given how many potential cultural and thematic threads are teased here with no resolution.
For example, the main thread of the story is Miguel’s family’s resistance to his musical dreams. The general question posed by his journey to the land of the dead is whether or not to value dreams more than family. It’s an inherently complicated question for a children’s film as Mexican culture often places family over everything else. The culture’s dedication to the past, and its often suffocating nature on those in the present, could have been explored to a depth never before seen in a film like this. Coco sees fit to stay on a safe path, however, despite hinting at this inner turmoil. It wants to represent the living (the present)’s reconciliation with the dead (the past), but there is no ultimate resolution to this. In fact, the climax of the film doesn’t involve the land of the living so once Miguel reaches the land of the dead, it’s like an entire half of the film’s cast was cut off completely.
Coco may lose control of its central message as it layers unresolved themes and ideas on top of its base story, but there is a notable attempt to maintain an emotional throughline. It’s not as effective as it can be, but once Pixar delivers their patented gut punch it can hit well. Although I do wonder whether or not someone outside of Mexican familial culture will react to the final few minutes in the same way.
The cast, especially the young Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel, all turn in a great performance if not entirely memorable. But I heartily appreciate the decision to include a majorly Latinx voice cast, if only to feel as authentic as possible. That’s why I find myself conflicted here.
I wanted Coco to knock it out of the park, and admittedly might be looking at it through a harsher lens than most, but I did walk out liking it at the end of the day. Perhaps you’ll do the same.