Coco honours its Mexican roots
Disney really loves cultural appropriation. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if they are to continue to explore the world for new storytelling avenues, they should follow in the footsteps of Coco.
The film is about Miguel Rivera, a 12-year-old Mexican boy who, despite his family’s harsh opposition to it, dreams of being a successful musician in the vein of his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. When his grandmother, who fears he’ll abandon the family if he pursues music like her grandfather did, destroys his guitar on Dia de Muertos, he runs away, and winds up in the Land of the Dead where he needs the blessing of a relative to return him to Earth.
This movie’s world is terrifically realized, creatively pulling a lot from Mexican folklore and iconography. The animation is vibrant, and superbly eclectic. It’s absolutely beautiful that the bridge between worlds is a literal bridge made of autumn leaves.
Anthony Gonzalez voices Miguel with an eager but impassioned flare. He’s not a terribly original protagonist, but you understand his dilemma and his passion for music.
The scene-stealer of the movie though is Miguel’s companion Hector, voiced magnificently by Gael Garcia Bernal. He’s the most interesting character with the most emotional motivation and his storyline is ultimately the most fulfilling.
Hector is both the heart of this movie and the comic relief, and is great in both respects, a testament to Bernal’s talent and that of the animators. Ernesto is voiced by Benjamin Bratt with the charismatic showmanship evocative of music-movie stars of the 1930s and 40s. The rest of the movie is populated with Mexican and LatinAmerican actors, including Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Cheech Marin, and Edward James Olmos.
Coco is a movie that fully embraces the culture it’s representing. The visual sense is drenched in unmistakeable Day of the Dead imagery and every frame seems to have something distinctly Mexican about it. But there are a myriad of movies that nail a cultural aesthetic down like this; it takes one that’s more clever and more devoted to go the extra mile.
Plenty of family films revolve around the moral of the importance of family, but Coco chooses to address it through the distinct lens of Mexican heritage and the themes of Dia de Muertos. Oral family history is an important focal point of this film, the remembering of ones ancestors its emotional drive. The significance of attaining familial blessing is a major plot device, essential to Miguel’s character arc. These aren’t common themes in western film, but are crucial ones in the customs and traditions of Latin America and many other societies around the world.
The fact that Coco makes them such a vital part of its story shows a real respect and understanding not often found in movies like this. Where the story in Brave for example could’ve been told anywhere, the story of Coco is thoroughly Mexican.
The film’s one weakness is probably the plot. The direction is fairly standard, the twists really predictable, and it falls into a few traps like the liar-revealed cliché and a misunderstanding. But while you absolutely know for the most part where the movie’s going, the journey there is in almost every other respect, entirely gratifying.
Coco is a dazzling movie. Not only is it entertaining and gorgeous to watch, but it demonstrates how to translate another culture right by using their own traditions to develop a story. It’s the difference between telling someone else’s story and just telling a story about someone else; and I think Coco should be an example for future animated movies wishing to honour that someone else’s culture on film. There was sadly no Pixar short before Coco. Instead, there was Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a poor 20-minute Christmas special that has no business being intrusively in front of this movie. It’s immensely ironic that this spin-off preoccupied with the theme of tradition is stomping over one of Pixars’ greatest. Just know if you’re twenty minutes late to a screening, you’re not missing anything.