FILM REVIEW: Disney Infuses Mexican Day of Dead Traditions With Life in COCO
With every new film in their pantheon, the Disney/Pixar collaboration ensures itself a place of immortality in our collective cultural souls. And with their upcoming release, Coco, the studios successfully take on precisely that topic: living forever, even after death, by seeking out an eternal space in the memories of others.
Coco fits squarely within the modern Disney/Pixar film of the last decade, an unconventional story that is molded to have no mold and that emphasizes simple personal values as a post-modern approach to existence. Love stories exited their genre almost two decades ago, ceding way to analyses of childhood and the pains and joys of growing up (Toy Story, Up). But even those themes have receded a bit now, or at least began to share space with more adult notions such as the consequences of following one’s own dreams (Frozen) and, with Coco, of the transcendental importance of family and tradition to buoy our existences into another dimension.
In the somewhat confusing set up for Coco, we follow young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) as he embarks on a death-defying adventure to become a musician and gain the support of his family. It is set around, and is about, the holiday known as “Dia de los Muertos,” (the Day of the Dead), feted by Hispanic cultures and most notably in Mexico on November 1 each year, to honor and remember the dead. Miguel’s adventure takes place mostly in a land beyond our own world, where he encounters dearly departed family members and enlists the help of a trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) in order to journey back home to the land of the living.
Coco is actually somewhat light in the universe-defining rules that characterize some of Disney/Pixar’s most recent hits like Inside Out. Most notably, there is death after death in this skeletal world, and the dead need to have their picture placed in a Day of the Dead offering in order to be permitted to make the passage to spend the day with their cherished loved ones. It is not clear why the living are, despite this careful setup, not able to see their ghostly relatives even under these circumstances, and it is best not to ask. The parameters of the universe do not make complete sense—most importantly, why exactly is Miguel treated as seemingly the first soul ever to accidentally venture into the land of the dead, and why a family blessing is required to send him back.
But the point is that Miguel is there and that two central points must be overcome to resolve the plot cheerfully—one thematic, the other a procedural device. First, if a nonliving being is forgotten in the land of the living, then he or she dies again and disappears forever, death within death if you will. Second, Miguel has until sunrise to obtain a family blessing and return to his real family. But the family he encounters—his great great grandmother Imelda leading the way—conditions his return on him never practicing music, a ban that is enforced by his earthly grandmother as well. Unsatisfied, Miguel embarks on a journey to find Hector De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) his lifelong idol and one of Mexico’s supposed biggest music stars (modeled loosely after Vicente Fernandez), to obtain a return ticket, no (guitar) strings attached.
At the core of Coco are a set of complex but intertwined ideas and topics that blend together seamlessly to produce a magnificent, uplifting, and profoundly emotional movie. The first and most obvious is the homage it pays, effectively and respectfully, to Mexican culture and traditions, particularly those revolving around the thematic holiday. The movie deals heavily with nostalgia, fittingly so, given the moniker that even the dead pass away to another world if forgotten by the living. The Mexico of the 21st Century may itself may not be as keen as the people in this film on this religiously-infused Holiday let alone the Mexican-Americans whose accents and dialects Coco most closely-resembles and who are perhaps more likely to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than Dia De los Muertos. But the homage to culture and tradition is welcome and works effectively here.
The second, and interrelated theme, is the exultation of family above all else, concepts not seen in full since at least The Incredibles. In Coco, family members play a difficult role between friend and foe, between savior and doom. Familial ties are, of course, front and center in Hispanic cultures, paramount in the decisions we organize and decide our lives. These ties spans generations and eras and Disney is essentially constructing a bridge built beautifully from music, nostalgia, and family ties, between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The movie is devoted to these concepts with its heavy and sincere heart, even if the story that it weaves around is as times not as magical and at times simply straightforward.
Add to all of this a majestic palette of animation coupled with the fresh soundtrack of frequent Pixar collaborator Michael Giacchino (Up) and the songs of the Lopez couple from Brooklyn that penned now classic songs like those on the Frozen soundtrack. You really could not ask for more in the creativity department, even though Disney/Pixar have set the bar so impossibly high for themselves. The ballads, which borrow loosely from traditional Mexican music, including mariachi songs and boleros and are led by the superb “Remember Me,” exhibit a devoted commitment to the love of the music that the movie itself exults.
One of our own has already described Coco as a “masterpiece.” While I would not go that far, there is no doubt that Coco is a superb movie. It combines impeccable cultural awareness with moving emotional tones, dense but universal themes of the bonds that unite us with the lighthearted humor directed at children. And it delivers a message of joy seamlessly and easily, speaking across the countries, the generations, and the cultures. But it is not only because it believes in the age old saying about worldwide ways to communicate. Disney has made, for decades now, not just music, but film the universal language.