Movie Review: Coco is Pixar’s most beautiful and important film to date

From the moment I first heard that Pixar was making a film revolving around Mexican culture, I was wary. Disney doesn’t exactly have the best history with cultural sensitivity, especially since production on this film started with them trying to copyright “Day of the Dead”. My biggest concern was with Disney and Pixar trying to reduce the 20 Spanish-speaking countries to there just being Mexico, as most films do.

Then the film starts, and all my worries disappear as soon as grandma Abuelita Elena (Reene Victor) gets upset when our main character Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) says no to more food and then when she threatens a musician with her sandal.

Coco starts with one of Pixar’s trademarks: a prologue told through beautiful animation – this time told through papel picado, or traditional tissue-paper art. We learn how years ago, Miguel’s great-great grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician who abandoned her and their daughter to pursue his dreams. To provide for her daughter, Imelda picked up shoemaking as a trade that has since become a family business – and in bitter response to the pain inflicted by Imelda’s husband, they banished all music from their lives.

Four generations later, the Rivera household is structured as a traditional Mexican matriarchy, where Imelda’s daughter Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) and granddaughter Abuelita Elena lead the family and everyone follows their every command. While the values and family interactions presented in the film will seem familiar to most Hispanics – if not to everyone everywhere, the way Coco presents the family dynamic is intrinsically Mexican. Every member of the family works in shoe-making, and no one ever goes against the family’s wishes lest they face the power of the mighty chancla – a sandal, worn by Hispanic mothers as a weapon with the accuracy of a samurai.

Because everyone listens to Abuelita Elena and avoid all music, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Miguel longs to become a musician. Not any musician though, he wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Mexico’s music and movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Then on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Miguel messes up the family’s ofrenda – a private altar where you put photos and personal objects of deceased loved ones to remember them, as well as offerings you leave for them – and ends up transported to the literal Land of the Dead, where he will discover some shocking secrets about his family.

There is no company anywhere that pushes the technology behind animation quite like Pixar does, and this is their most impressive feat yet. Forget the photorealistic hairlines from The Incredibles, you’ll almost forget Mamá Coco isn’t a living person. Likewise, the Land of the Dead feels worn in and full of life and energy. The first thing you notice when Miguel crosses over is the marigold bridge connecting the land of the living and the dead. In a time when the president of the United States talks about building walls to keep people out, Coco is literally building bridges.

The city itself is a marvel to look at. Audiences will be treated to thousands upon thousands of buildings that feel full of life and colour inspired by the city of Guanajuato, and the skeletal inhabitants of the city all feel like different people with personalities. The city is bathed with a vibrant array of warm colours that help disguise the serious themes being explored in the film, like death and memory.

Co-writer and co-director Adrian Molina made sure the Pixar team made several trips to Mexico to portray in the most honest way possible. The credits list four cultural consultants, which made sure Coco was a product of love and respect, and not just cultural appropriation. It also doesn’t hurt when every member of Coco’s voice cast (except John Ratzenberger’s obligatory cameo) is Latino.

While you don’t have to be Latino to enjoy Coco, there are lots of treats for those familiar with the culture. Easter-eggs range from Buzz Lightyear piñatas to celebrated Mexican icons like Frida Kahlo, Cantinflas, Pedro Infante and even a small cameo by wrestling icon El Santo. This could have easily been a caricature making fun of or just referencing Mexican culture in a superficial way, but what makes Coco special is how it is a loving tribute to the culture, shown no as exotic or foreign, but normalized.

The film doesn’t try to educate audiences with no prior knowledge on Mexican traditions, it does expand the way they may look at Día de los Muertos, by shining a light on the importance of remembering those who leave us, and what is more universal that that?

Pixar has officially never made a full-on musical, but with Coco they come the closest. The film is all about how music impacts us in profound ways, and the filmmakers went out of their way to make this an unforgettable experience. In addition to the always-great Michael Giacchino, the filmmakers also brought in Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco and Sound DJ and remix artist from the Mexican Institute of Sound Camilo Lara to serve as co-composer and music consultant, respectively. They brought in 50 musicians from all genres to rearrange into the final soundtrack. The result is a loving tribute to every style of Mexican music, from mariachi, to norteñas, to banda, to jarocho. Then there’s Remember Me, the now Oscar-nominated song that will leave no dry eye in the theater.

Coco may not be Pixar’s most revolutionary film, but the way it treats the culture it depicts and the beauty of it’s filmmaking makes this one of their best films yet. If there’s one guarantee with this film is that you will immediately want to hug your grandparents and hear stories about your relatives.

Grade: Opening Night

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