First, if you haven’t read my piece about John Lasseter, please do. It feels like an important piece of the conversation.
On to the movie. Coco is Pixar’s latest offering about a little boy named Miguel. Miguel comes from a long line of shoe makers and he knows that’s his destiny even if it isn’t his passion. He lives and works with his parents, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother, who all have the same very strict rule: absolutely no music. So guess what Miguel’s true passion is? That’s right: it’s music. He idolizes Mexico’s most popular singer, Ernesto De La Cruz. And on the day of the dead, he’d love nothing more than to participate in the town’s talent show, but not only is this forbidden by his relatives, he must honour the dead at the family altar instead – every single one of them, except for his great-grandmother’s father, who left his young family to pursue music, which is the whole reason behind the curse.
Of course, this being a movie and all, things do not go smoothly. Miguel’s pursuit of his passion means he accidentally crosses into the land of the dead himself, and he needs the help of his dead ancestors (possibly including that cur, his great, great-grandfather) in order to return home.
Pixar does not miss the opportunity to splash the screen with colour. It’s a riot, and constantly just beautiful to look at. Sean and I love and visit Mexico frequently, and it’s clear the animators do too. There’s something about the juxtaposition of smiling skeletons and vivid colours that just captures the imagination. But the film treats every day Mexico just as lovingly. The opening scene is done through papel picado – those brightly coloured tissue paper banners with intricately cut-out designs. It’s distinctive and impressive Mexican folk art that really establishes the scene for us early on. Coco is a buffet of visual delight, but it also tells a very compelling story. Yes, the following your dreams thing has been done to death (pun intended) but Coco is also a meditation on family, forgiveness, memory, and love. It takes a kids movie about death to truly speak to the joy and the pain of being alive.
And I’m glad Pixar has finally given us a non-white character in the lead role. It’s about time. I feel like the whole movie reads like a love letter to Mexico and its culture and traditions, but Pixar hasn’t acquitted itself entirely honourably during the film’s production. Pixar has a history of distinguishing itself from Disney movies by not really doing musicals. This isn’t technically a musical either, but it’s got musical numbers, so it seems like a missed opportunity, and in fact a bit of an embarrassing blunder, to have not used a Mexican composer. We have to tread a fine line between paying tribute to another culture, and appropriating it. Coco was originally set to be titled Dia de los Muertos, and of course Disney tried to copyright that name. You can imagine the uproar this caused – so much so that Pixar belatedly brought some Mexican ‘consultants’ on board just to make sure they didn’t step in any more shit, and as you can tell, they quickly made a name change. At any rate, the movie felt quite respectful to me, but I’m not really the one who gets final say on that. I will say that it feels like a nice offering by an American studio in the age of Donald Trump and his egregious wall.
And a note to parents: Coco has a running time of 1 hour, 49 minutes. There’s also a 21 minute “short” before it (Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), and when you factor in previews on top of that, you’re looking at nearly two and a half hours. The kids in our screening were quite well behaved, but the middle-aged man who felt entitled to sit in the middle of the row despite his flimsy bladder, got up no less than 3 times. So be prepared.
Coco is Pixar’s best since Inside Out. It’s so layered with detail that it begs to be rewatched. It’s charming and lively and yes, it made me cry.
If you can’t get enough of Coco, check out my own Day of the Dead makeover.