Film Review – Coco
It’s a careful balancing act, making a movie that both celebrates a heritage in an entertaining fashion and yet doesn’t trivialize that same culture. It’s an especially tricky balance when creating an animated kid’s movie which usually trade in generalities or quickly referenced stereotypes. Representation is important, and let’s face it, there just aren’t many main stream movies that celebrate Mexico to which kids can relate. The bonus that it is packaged in such a fun, moving film is the magic of the new Pixar movie, Coco.
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is our hero and narrator. He begins by telling the story of his family’s past, when his Great Great Grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was left by her husband to raise their daughter alone. The husband went off to make his fortune in music. So as a reaction, the single mother rejects all music and begins the family business of shoe making. Miguel’s family, having inherited this legacy, hates music and is all about the business. But Miguel secretly worships the greatest musician in the world, Ernesto de la Cruz (gamely voiced by Benjamin Bratt). Every attempt to play music or express himself is thwarted by Miguel’s Grandmother. She’s loving, but will have none of the nonsense that she blames for robbing her own mother, Miguel’s Great Grandmother, of having a father. That Great Grandmother is the titular character Coco.
So on the Dios De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which family’s celebrate the memory of their departed ancestors, Miguel attempts to use a guitar once played by de la Cruz so he can enter a talent show. However, this has unexpected consequences as it sends Miguel on a journey to the afterlife where the dead walk around as skeletons relishing this one night a year they can visit the living. Miguel can interact with them while still living. And so begins his journey to find acceptance by his family as well as discovering more about his musical heritage.
Firstly, the animation on display is stellar. The bright colors used in the afterlife are vibrant. The Latin influenced look of the afterlife makes for a rich visual palette that we don’t often see. Also, there is a lot of wonderful guitar playing in this film. And the animation of those playing instruments is painstakingly recreated. Music is the heart of this film.
Miguel is a fun, likable presence. Along the way he meets his ancestors and the departed famous singer de la Cruz. The most fleshed out character (a pun since all of the figures in the afterlife are skeletons) is Hector as earnestly voiced by Gael García Bernal. This character is looking for someone to take his picture back to the land of the living and display it on an altar since being remembered by the living is the only way to survive in the afterlife.
Disney has a complicated history with subsuming non-white cultures with their animated films. Aladdin, while a great movie, has a complicated relationship with Middle Eastern culture. The heroes in it are somewhat Anglicized while the villains have more exaggerated ethnic features. Pocahontas goes even further with it’s white washing of history glossing over it’s title character’s virtual ownership by John Smith and his men. And the famously troubling cultural politics of Song of the South are such that it’s hard to even be able to find a copy of that movie to see because of it’s racial stereotypes. Even classics like Fantasia and Pinocchio have periodically offensive racial caricatures that crop up. So it is long overdue for Disney to portray minorities with respect and positivity. They’ve been trying. The Princess and The Frog was an attempt at an African American Disney Princess, but the results were so lackluster that everyone forgets that movie even exists. There was a strong supporting Latina voiced female character in the recent Cars 3, but again, the film itself was only so-so. Far and away their best recent film featuring a minority cast was last year’s Queen of Katwe. But of course, that was live action. So their animation division still has a lot of ground to cover when it comes to representation. This film is a good step.
Where this fits in the Pixar canon is squarely in the middle. But given Pixar’s track record, that is not a bad thing since even the worst Pixar movie is still better than 80% of other movies. This is better than the lowest tier such as the Cars series, but not quite to the level of their best such as Up or Toy Story. The beginning of Coco has a quirky sense of humor. For instance, the tale of how the famous singer died back in 1942 is darkly funny. And the timing of the family’s banter is crisp. The film sags a little in the middle with a few characters that are a little underwritten. If most of his dead relatives had more to them than a quickly identified visual gag we might be more invested in them. But that portion of the movie is a bit too much running around in an extended chase. However, the final third of the film is rich and resonates. The climax is surprisingly emotional, due in no small part to the fantastic animation of Coco herself. The detail they give this old woman, in skin tone and lived in wrinkle and her very body carriage is a triumph of character design. The camera fixed on her while she struggles with her own memory is proof once again that the Pixar animators are masters of infusing animation with soul.
Coco is a worthy entry in the Pixar animation catalog. The music is rich and fun. The animation is stellar as always. While a few of the supporting characters don’t make much of an impression, Miguel, Hector, Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel’s Grandma, and his Great Grandmother Coco, all leave a lasting memory. This is yet another film aimed at the young that the old can enjoy as well.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with production designer Harley Jessup.