To the holiday season moviegoer anxiously anticipating the chance to find out what
the buzz surrounding the new Pixar film “Coco” is all about, I implore you: stick it
out. For the first 21 minutes of what should be a film that represents one of the
greatest achievements of modern day computer animation, you are going to be
subjected to a short film based on the gratingly popular Disney movie “Frozen” that
will test the limits of your patience.
It is not difficult to imagine a table of thousand dollar suits with golden mouse ears
pinned to their lapels making the call to plug what are currently the behemoth’s
most recognizable (and let’s face it folks, merchandisable) characters in front of
another film (let’s face it, one full of brown folks) that has every right to be front and
center. We can think of this maneuver in one of two ways: The first is as another
painful example of corporate blindness in the face of shifting cultural consciousness.
The second, darker possibility is that the force feeding of a “palatable” (folks, let’s
face it, white) narrative in the place of Pixar’s long beloved tradition of award
winning shorts could be seen as the death shudders of an industry in which the
decisions, primarily made by men pale enough to have stood in as artist’s models for
the resident’s of Elsa’s Norwegian village, have resulted in the worst holiday box
office season in recent memory. It is telling that Disney chose NOT to include the
“short” in critic’s screenings of “Coco” and that theatre’s have now removed it in
several major international markets. It made members of my viewing audience so
uncomfortable that at one point I heard someone groan audibly from several rows
All of this to say do not concern yourself with rushing to the theatre, and take plenty
of time doctoring up the popcorn. You have 21 minutes to kill.
Yes, this is Hollywood, and like the ancient mariners maps of old the corner of edge
of the modern studio film industry could be marked with a warning in looping
calligraphy that “Here, there be irony.” This particular irony comes in the form of a
ten year old animated Mexican boy named Miguel and his family who, fortunately
for the suits (and their bottom lines) might just manage to save the season with
their capable (skeletal) hands. One can only hope that everyone involved is getting
paid a living wage.
A fair warning to ye: here there be spoilers.
“Coco” begins by explaining the history of the Rivera family, a clan of skillful
shoemakers who are as passionate about their craft as they are about their singular
family rule: no music. The origin of this rule lies in the abandoning of the Rivera’s
now deceased matriarch Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) by her musician husband, a
sin so great that his face has been torn off of the family photo which sits at the top of
the Rivera household’s ofrenda during Dia de los Muertos each year.
This curse is most unfortunate for 12-year- old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who,
despite his family’s best efforts, has developed an interest in music spurred on by
his love for the deceased world-renowned performer Ernesto de la Cruz (the prolific
Benjamin Bratt.) Miguel’s love of music is most vexing to his Abuelita (voiced by a
fiery Renee Victor) who in a moment of frustration over her grandson’s refusal to
adhere to their singular house rule destroys his prized possession, a beat up guitar.
The loss of his instrument sends Miguel scrambling to come up with an alternative
for the evening’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations, the climax of which is a musical
showcase where he hopes to “seize his moment” and finally show his family that his
destiny is not to spend his entire life as a shoemaker.
If this all sounds a bit predictable, that’s likely because it is. For a studio that has
long prided itself on being the “anti-Disney” (with rule’s like no music, no “I want”
moment, no villain) this narrative feels suspiciously mousey. Perhaps Pixar learned
after the weak reception of it’s last stand alone feature “The Good Dinosaur” that
you don’t have to stand entirely in opposition of traditional story telling. The
lynchpin of this story lies in Miguel’s becoming convinced that Ernesto de la Cruz is
his long lost great-grandfather, the wayward guitarist whose disappearance was the
catalyst for the Rivera family’s distaste for music in the first place.
When Miguel’s attempt to take the guitar of his supposed grandfather from the
deceased musician’s tomb lands him in the world of the dead, the help of a trickster
named Hector (charmingly voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal) who also just happens to
play guitar, who also just happens to need his own photo placed in the land of the
living before his spirit disappears entirely from the world of the dead, who also just
happens to also know de la Cruz, points us the audience towards a twist that even
the youngest theatergoer will likely see coming.
This is not to say the movie is not enjoyable—exactly the opposite. Like Abuelita
who is as likely to pat you on the head and let you lick a cooking spoon as she is to
chase you from her kitchen tossing a shoe in your wake (while making you retrieve
it), even when “Coco” beats you over the head with themes of familial responsibility,
unconditional love, and the importance of following your dreams, you’ll still find
yourself wanting to sneak back in to throw your arms around it’s warm, generously
Where the movie succeeds unequivocally is in its achievement as a visual
masterpiece. The moment when Miguel encounters the city of the dead for the first
time is a shot that, despite having been revealed in advance by a rather heavy
handed marketing campaign, still had me savoring it’s composition of tens of
thousands of buildings and over 8 million colorful lights. The characters are brought
to life with a richness that brought me back to the first time that I watched Andy run
his hands over the hard plastic of his new Buzz Lightyear action figure. Soft lines
and inspired face-paint help to distinguish the skeletal figures once Miguel has left
the living, and also represent another departure from a Pixar standard of story
telling “truth in materials.” One of the final moments features prominently the
namesake of the movie, Miguel’s great grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), her
wrinkled skin is rendered in such exquisite detail that it brought me perilously close
to the uncanny valley.
Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and co-director Adrian Molina (The Good
Dinosaur, Monster’s University), both of who were also co-writers, deserve credit for
their work here. The production team spent six years traveling to and from
Northern Mexico for their research, going as far as to assemble a team of cultural
consultants including the artist Lalo Alcarez and playwright Octavio Solis after a
well publicized misstep in 2013 when an attempt was made to copyright the term
“Dia de los Muertos.” Their work shows.
The natural trap for a story about a young boy’s passion for music to fall into would
be a heavy-handed score. Longtime composer Michael Giacchino deftly navigates
this potential pitfall with a score that never overpowers what’s happening on
screen, delivering plenty of depth while still leaving room for the film to breathe. If
you are like me, you’ll find yourself ironically humming the melody to one of three
the original songs “Remember Me” long after you’ve thrown your ticket stub away.
I would be remiss not to mention that “Coco” is the first Pixar film to feature a
human non-white protagonist, and one of only a handful of Disney features to do the
same. The entire cast, with the exception of John Ratzenberger who has voiced a
character in every Pixar film to date, is Latino. While it is shameful that in 2017 this
has to be pointed out and espoused as a milestone of filmmaking, one can only hope
that two of the top four slots in Thanksgiving opening weekend gross sales being
held by animated movies featuring dark skinned protagonists (Moana being the
second) has the suits listening.
Is Coco a perfect movie? Not by a long shot. It is probably not even the best of the Pixar movies, though I would certainly rank it in my personal top three. Likewise, there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the lack of representation and outright appropriation of indigenous Mexican culture. But in a national moment when cross cultural empathy seems to have fallen to an all time low for our neighbors just across the border to the South, Coco steps boldly forward. It is a film yelling a message about our shared values of family, individuality, and the power that comes with seizing both your dreams and your moment. Through a ten year old boy’s eyes we are offered the opportunity to see once again that really, we’re not all that different underneath the political rhetoric and fear mongering which has threatened to tear (or more accurately, wall) our two countries apart over these last eighteen months. One can only hope that we are as brave as Miguel, which is to say that we are brave enough to ignore the naysayers and listen to our own hearts.