After seeing Coco twice (once in 2D and once in 3D), I wholeheartedly endorse that everyone shell out the $15 to see this movie that will likely shift the representations of minorities in the film industry and make you want to hug your family more than any of its Disney predecessors.
Going into the movie, I had watched videos of other people’s reviews that said 1) they cried a lot, 2) it was a beautiful movie with some really interesting and impressive animation, and 3) there was a really good twist. Thankfully, I avoided any spoilers and still had no idea what the main plot of the movie would be. I also did not know how the film would tie in Día de Muertos (which I recently learned is the correct name, not the anglicized Día de los Muertos), a holiday which I knew a little bit about from my Spanish classes in K-12. I do think having some prior knowledge of the holiday helped me enjoy the movie more but there are several moments that explain the context for viewers who have never heard of it.
Regarding the animation, I’m no expert but I tried to soak in as many Pixar details as I could. I absolutely loved the opening scene and how they told the story using papel picado, which is a Mexican decorative art made by cutting patterns and images into brightly colored tissue paper similar to cutting snowflakes around Christmastime, but much more intricate and meaningful. The personalities of each ancestor were intricately exhibited via variations in skeletal shape, size and ornamentation; characters that were better-remembered were more pure white whereas those who were at risk of being forgotten appeared more worn or had broken bones. Thus, the skeletons – complete with eyes – achieved a communicative power beyond their traditional Halloween spookiness and macabre association with death.
The bright colors of the marigolds and alebrijes (animal spirit guides based in Mexican folklore and wood-carving tradition) were stunning. Pepita, the large jaguar-eagle-like creature from the previews, was even more so impressive in 3D than in 2D. Although I would love a copy of the concept art of the city of the dead due to its colorful architecture and over 6 million animated lights, the panoramic shot was not as impressive or as long as I wanted it to be – it was scarcely longer than what was seen in the previews so I did not have as much time to soak it in as I would’ve liked. However, there were some shots later in the movie in which the camera travels through the streets and skies of the land of the dead that were more striking and made me wish that they would bring this land to life in the theme parks so I could get physically lost in the details – a maze like the Alice in Wonderland one in Shanghai Disney perhaps?
The hallmark of Pixar animated movies – the hidden Easter eggs – were not as hidden as they’ve been in previous movies. The Luxo ball is more difficult to find than the Pizza Planet truck or piñatas of Mike and Sully so keep your eyes peeled. Additionally, I think I spotted forms of Mike and Sully in appropriately blue and green colored papel picado in the courtyard of the Rivera home near the beginning of the movie but I need someone to confirm that I wasn’t just seeing things.
Pixar movies are usually years in the making due to the technological challenges that animators face in creating more realistic details and Coco was no exception. Simulating how cloth would behave on skeletal frames and synchronizing the music of a guitar to accurate animations of strumming fingers and vibrating strings led to Pixar’s most recent technical advancements in CGI animation and the most visually stunning Pixar film yet.
Although this has been lauded as Pixar’s first musical, it is not a musical in the classic Disney sense with characters bursting into song for no real reason. Songs are only sung in purposeful moments in which singing songs makes sense such as a performance or a lullaby. And these songs are lovely but not as catchy as Frozen’s, which is good and bad – I was slightly disappointed at the lack of catchiness. There’s no “I want” song like a Broadway musical but there are several reprises of “Remember Me” that changes drastically in meaning depending on who is singing it which adds a deeper level of meaning to the soundtrack. I could not tell whether the other main songs during the performance scenes were well-known Spanish songs or if they were entirely invented for the movie; I believe they were the latter but with a great deal of influence from the former.
As a proud fan of classical Spanish guitar, I was not overly impressed by the guitar playing on the soundtrack, but perhaps Disney did not want to revisit their tactic on Pirates of the Caribbean 4 of recruiting famous guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela (my favorite musicians) due to the movie’s limited success. Having Miguel not be a guitar savant also made more sense for his character. Michael Giacchino’s score was not anything memorable but it also was not intrusive; listening to the score alone is pleasant and is capable of transporting me back into the world of Miguel’s hometown of Santa Cecilia.
Plot & Characters
The movie was well-paced with purposeful scenes and moments of extremely high tension that had me on the edge of my seat. I did not predict the twist like I had hoped despite many hints throughout the movie that I was only able to catch the second time around. I did not cry as much as I expected to but the morals of the story made me miss and value my family nonetheless.
The main characters of Miguel, Ernesto and Hector were all fleshed out well and I could see them each becoming fan favorites for years to come. I also great admiration for Mama Imelda and thought that her character development was almost as great as Miguel’s in her change of heart and remembering who she used to be; I also loved how she had an incredibly intimidating alebrije in Pepita that just screamed female empowerment to me.
My one gripe is that the alebrijes served a little bit too important a purpose in the movie: like the eagles in Lord of the Rings, if the alebrijes, Pepita in particular, hadn’t existed, then the plot definitely would have had to be reworked and the resolution wouldn’t have been possible. While the rest of the story and the messages about the importance of family are universal enough that the film could have been set in several other cultures, that culture would need to have some sort of spiritual creatures to function. I also wonder whether the purpose of alebrijes was tweaked from their original significance in Mexican culture.
While I cannot speak to how important this movie is to the Latinx community, I will give my two cents but strongly encourage you to read the opinions of Latinx film critics because their voices matter much more than mine. In addition to these opinions, there has been an outpouring of support on Twitter with stories of Mexican families going to see this film and finally feeling like their culture wasn’t being stereotyped or the butt of a joke. Besides Disney’s early misstep of trying to trademark “Día de Los Muertos” as the title of the film so they could make merchandise and placing a Frozen short in front of the movie with the goal of luring more people to the theater because they thought it might be successful, the other ways that the company has advertised the film have been respectful and educational. The film was first premiered at a Mexican film festival, the credits have extensive mentions of the towns and people that helped in the research of the movie as well as a sentence to encourage viewers to learn more about Día de Muertos by visiting a local library. The advertising in the theme parks such as mariachi bands, food, and story-telling (which I did not personally experience) seemed to be educational and draw a lot of people into the parks.
Coco had similar themes as 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings but is leaps and bounds better in its cultural representation; all of the voice actors were of Latin descent and many more people of the represented culture were involved in the making of the movie. I can only imagine how impactful this movie will be for Hispanic, and especially Mexican, children to see characters that look like them and sound like them and their families. The usage of the Spanish language throughout the movie struck me as extremely significant because of all of the families in the US in particular that have both Spanish and English spoken in the home. Viewers without a knowledge of Spanish will not miss much but there are definitely some jokes left in for Spanish speakers. I learned new words (chamaco means kid) after looking up the translations of the Spanish songs and I am very excited that the movie is offered dubbed or subtitled in Spanish in select theaters.
I very much look forward to reading the scholarly articles about the effect that this movie has on the movie industry going forward.
I loved this movie for its messages about the importance of your family and of following your dreams as well as its visually stunning and respectful depiction of Mexican culture. It serves as a launching point for educating children about death as well as for encouraging further explorations and appreciation of the customs of different countries. Listening to the soundtrack will forever make my cry, miss my grandparents, and be thankful for my early exposure to the Spanish language. I hope to see this movie continue to have a large presence in all Disney parks to help create lasting memories for children and parents in generations to come.