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Film Review: Coco

Coco (2017; Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)

The production process on big-budget animated features like Disney/Pixar’s Coco is longer than your usual Hollywood movie, if you didn’t know. So this eye-poppingly colourful and touchingly respectful fantasy of Mexican cultural traditions, family memory, and embracing creative artistry could not have been conceived and mostly made with the foreknowledge of how much more political urgent it would feel upon its release in 2017.

To be certain, even though immigration to the United States from Mexico specifically has waned in recent years even as migrants from elsewhere in Latin America (particularly refugees often fleeing for their lives from the volatile nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) have picked up the slack, Mexican cultural influence and political currency remain the most prominent Stateside of any Latin-American country. Americans (particularly White Americans) have simply become more accustomed to viewing Mexicans as the representative migrant group among Latin-Americans, to witnessing those people’s established and rooted communities (some of which, lest we forget, pre-dated white settlement in parts of the country) subsisting alongside their own. For a nation supposedly defined by constant change and frontier-pushing redefinition, America can be as loathe to shift its pre-conceived and well-set notions as any number of less apparently adventurous national consciousnesses.

This prominence has made Mexico, Mexican migrants, and settled Mexican-Americans one of the prime targets for xenophobia, racist fearmongering, and ramped-up border protectionism, even before Donald Trump’s particularly crude amplification of these ugly forces helped to lift him most dispiritingly into the White House. But it has also made Mexican-Americans an increasingly important media demographic, worthy of being pitched a culturally-sensitive and celebratory nine-figured-budget movie from what is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent and revered studio assembly line of original popular narratives and emotional values. And so Coco stands with more defiance than it might otherwise have done, defending the rich culture and values of a diverse nation of 123 million people from weaponized prejudice and rampant stereotypes, from smears of criminality and children’s detention camps, from “Build the Wall!”

This position is probably far more than this movie has asked for, and if it holds up against the hostility of these forces then that’s because it’s tightly constructed, thematically strong, stunningly beautiful, and even touching (in that heavily-workshopped, factory-of-feelings way that Pixar films set out to move us in emotional terms). Set on and crafted around the traditions and observances of the well-known, visually rich, syncretic Catholic/pagan Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, Coco follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a multichromatic quest into his family’s history. Miguel’s family runs a hard-toiling, hereditary shoemaking workshop, but further in its past, his great-great-grandfather was a travelling musician. After this man was accused of abandoning his young family to pursue dreams of stardom by Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), all music was banished from the family, a practice which has continued down to Miguel’s day. Although Miguel loves his clan dearly, this familial tradition causes him great consternation since he cherishes secret dreams of becoming a musician himself, like his idol and hometown hero, the late Mexican superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Driven to desperation for a guitar with which to play a Día de Muertos talent show in the village plaza after his strict grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys his own instrument, Miguel steals into de la Cruz’s memorial chapel and shrine and snatches the master’s distinctive white guitar. This act sets in motion a fantastical voyage to the Land of the Dead, a glowing rainbow-spectrum stacked afterlife metropolis inhabited by departed people turned into living skeletal calaveras. By the rules of this world, the dead endure as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them, which makes the Day of the Dead, with its ofrenda altars of memory festooned with decoration and mementoes of deceased loved ones, the most important day of the year in the Land of the Dead. The dead are screened through customs gates (a familiar bureaucratic barrier fraught with its own ambivalent cultural memory for generations of Mexican-Americans) and, if ofrendas to their memory have been erected, they may cross an arched bridge made of orange flower petals (one of those lovely poetic images that have become the trademark of Pixar works) to visit invisibly with their living descendants until sunrise ends Día de Muertos.

Miguel is unable to obtain a blessing from his calavera ancestors (including the implacable Imelda) that will allow him both to return to the living realm and to continue to play music. Thus, to avoid becoming a skeleton-person himself or returning to his life without any hope of music in it, Miguel enlists the aid of a shifty, ill-remembered outcast rogue character named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who, in exchange for a ofrenda photo placement to keep him from being forgotten, promises to bring the boy to de la Cruz, a prominent figure in the Land of the Dead as well and potentially the mysterious great-great-grandfather who left Miguel’s family decades before, in search of a music-empowering blessing. What Miguel finds will challenge his family’s traditions and, subtly, his own sense of himself.

For all of its grounding in Mexican Día de Muertos traditions, Coco (written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote most of the Latin-pop songs and was given a co-director credit with Pixar vet Lee Unkrich) also takes pains to make itself thematically intelligible to the more general audience for Disney/Pixar releases. Hence, the comical animal sidekicks, namely Miguel’s Xolo dog tagalong Dante and Pepita, Imelda’s multicoloured winged tiger spirit animal, or alebrije. Hence, the careful and sanitized but still slightly bold approach to adult themes in a children’s (or at least all ages’) cartoon, namely deaths in the family. Hence, the sneaky wink-and-nudge jokes for the benefit of chaperone parents or young-at-heart adult viewers, namely Miguel’s encounter with Skeleton Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and her side-splitting stage designs for de la Cruz’s annual Day of the Dead concert: a giant papaya that dancers crawl out of, towards their mother “who is a cactus, who is also me!”

Miguel’s core conflict in Coco, however, animates a more identifiable concern for a more bourgeois creative class segment of Pixar’s large audience. Forbidden from the dangerous, homewrecking passionate pursuit of music by his strict but close-knit family, Miguel views his pre-ordained future as a toiling proletarian artisan with barely-disguised distaste. The suggestion that he be brought into the family workshop to cobble shoes all day until the day that his body quits on him is one that fills him with horror. The assumption that pursuing the life of a musician is superior to manual labour is a general one contained within Coco, not merely applicable to Miguel’s motivations and desires, and this is a very recognizable anxiety for Pixar’s majority white upper-middle-class audience (to say nothing of its creative forces).

Coco also evokes a very contemporary phenomenon of the prominent public figure falling from lofty grace and into lowly infamy due to an unforgivable past transgression (not to spoil it entirely, but let’s just say that Ernesto de la Cruz did not fully earn his musical legacy, and that Héctor’s pariah state is a profound injustice to him). Indeed, such themes are more at the forefront and active in the bones of the story than any conceptions of Mexican nationalism or Latin-American cultural solidarity of the course-correcting sort detailed in my introductory paragraphs. It’s simply a statement to the dehumanizing vehemence towards poor and vulnerable immigrants (refugees fleeing for their safety, many of them) among the xenophobic American right that a fond and lively portrait of colourful Mexican culture and passionate family connections like Coco can feel like a nearly-revolutionary position-taking.

But it’s precisely by whittling away the implacable ideological diminishment of the rights, agency, and feelings of the marginalized with empathy and emotional understanding that the fractious and hostile polity can mend and heal itself. Coco is a manufactured delight in the best Pixar tradition, but if it rises above that to any extent, it’s probably because it engages in this grander discursive project of fairness, comprehension, and maybe, more distantly, justice and co-existence.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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