Audiences Fall in Love With the “Coco”
by Israel Gomez
As an authentic and culturally sensitive take on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, Pixar’s “Coco” charmingly tells a story about a young boy, his dream to become a musician, and death.
The film, directed by Lee Unkrich, takes place in Mexico and the Land of the Dead. Twelve-year-old Miguel, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, finds himself yearning to become a musician, but because his great-great-grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, his family has completely denounced music. However, after learning that his idol, the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz, may be his ancestor, Miguel goes to steal his guitar to play in a Dia de los Muertos music competition. He acquires the guitar in de la Cruz’s tomb, but, after strumming it, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead. This is where most of the film takes place, as Miguel begins his journey to find de la Cruz with the hopes of receiving his blessing to become a musician.
Right off the bat, the beauty of the film’s animation becomes one of its greatest strengths. The level of detail in the characters makes them come to life, especially Miguel’s great-grandmother, a sweet old woman of few words. The vibrant colors of Mexico’s architecture is wonderfully captured in “Coco,” and, as a result, Miguel’s town feels both lively and realistic. All throughout, “Coco” avoids cultural appropriation for the sake of entertainment, and remains true to its roots in Mexican culture. One particular example that comes to mind is the film’s inclusion of Frida Kahlo as a character, a Mexican painter whose work has had a lasting influence on Mexico’s culture.
The most stunningly beautiful visuals in “Coco” come while Miguel is in the Land of the Dead with his deceased ancestors. The level of detail the animators put into this movie becomes most apparent when Miguel is gazing at the huge, winding city of the dead. Bright neon greens and oranges take over the screen and keep the audience captivated during the scene. The animation draws the audience into Miguel’s journey through the vibrant city, and viewers cannot help but feel as stunned as Miguel feels when a giant part-cat, part-eagle creature named Pepita begins to hunt him down.
“Coco” excels at capturing the importance of respecting your family in Mexican culture, but also challenges compliancy through Miguel’s passionate individuality as a musician. His loving, yet stubborn grandmother is respected by Miguel for most of the film, but when her intentions put his dream at risk, he is left with no choice but to follow his own path. However, by sending Miguel in the Land of the Dead to meet his various ancestors, the film refrains from flat-out encouraging rebellion and instead explores the complexity behind familial conflicts. This is pushed further by some plot twists, which, although surprising to children, can be seen coming by older audiences.
Another strength of this film is the way it honors the legends and stories behind Dia de los Muertos, from the holiday’s rituals to the mythological creatures. Pepita, for example, is just one of the many spirit animals from Mexican folklore that the film portrays. Other smaller details, such as the bridge to the Land of the Dead being made of orange marigolds, a flower said to guide spirits to their families during the holiday through their color and scent, goes to show how much the filmmakers value authenticity in telling their tale.
For lovers of musicals and animated movies with meaningful music, “Coco” does not disappoint. The songs of “Coco” help further immerse viewers in Mexican culture. Gonzalez does a fantastic job owning the spirit of Miguel through his vocal performance, as do many other members of the cast. Composer Michael Giacchino, who also wrote the songs in Pixar’s “Ratatouille” and “Inside Out,” creates moving pieces fitting for the dramatic film. These charming songs will keep kids and adults alike entertained, and sometimes end up pulling viewer’s heartstrings, which is something Pixar has become an expert at doing (I’m looking at you, “UP”).
Overall, “Coco” is an adventurous and well-executed family film, and one that pushes the envelope in animation the way Pixar has with many other classics, such as “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.” Whether you are familiar with Mexican culture and Dia de los Muertos or not, “Coco” is worth catching in theaters while it's still out.