In December, a film critic’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Ten Best lists; in 2017, such ponderings lead me to the sad conclusion that overall, it was a disappointing year for fans of animated films – especially following, as it did, an outstanding crop of 2016 releases. This was nothing new this year from Laika, nor from Aardman. Did The Lego Movie really need sequels? Did anyone actually want to go see Boss Baby?
After enduring the goofy trailer for Ferdinand the Bull, I am wary of having my childhood memories of a classic ode to pacifism tainted. I might just sit tight and wait for Nick Park’s latest opus, Early Man, to come out in February. Meanwhile, unless the artsier Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen yet) pulls an upset, I suspect you can safely put your Oscar money on Coco.
Co-directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Coco doesn’t quite achieve the lofty status of Pixar’s best output like Up, Inside Out, Wall-E, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. The no-place-like-home story is just a little too familiar, albeit refreshingly recast in a Mexican worldview (not to mention afterworldview). But it comes close.
The most compelling attraction of Coco is its visual look, derived from the friendly-skeleton iconography of Día de los Muertos celebrations and the delightfully lurid colors of the folkloric carved monster figurines known in Mexico as alebrijes. Indeed, much like an earlier no-place-like-home story that became famous for introducing Technicolor cinematography at the point where the protagonist arrives in an alternate reality, it’s only when Coco’s young hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead that the movie really takes off. Maybe I just started out grumpy, after first having sat through 21 excruciating minutes of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure instead of the usual charming Pixar short (emphasis on short) as an intro. But until Miguel crossed that boundary between worlds, I was afraid that I was going to be unimpressed.
Miguel Rivera is growing up in a Mexican town significantly named Santa Cecilia, after the patron saint of music. His family once spawned famous musicians, but when his great-great-grandfather-who-must-not-be-named abandoned his wife and baby daughter Coco to pursue his artistic ambitions, musical careers were forbidden to future Riveras, who then turned their talents to shoemaking. The boy covertly practices on a homemade guitar in a secret shrine that he has built to his hero, deceased singing movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Santa Cecilia’s most famous scion. Beginning to suspect that de la Cruz may be his missing ancestor, whose face has been torn from the family portrait on the Riveras’ Día de Muertos altar or ofrenda, he tries to borrow the dead singer’s guitar from a museum and triggers a curse that propels him, still living, into the afterlife.
It’s there, in an eye-popping, decidedly religion-free metropolis where dead people work all day and party all night, that Miguel’s story really grabs hold. In order to cross back over a bridge of marigold petals (through a gateway that will remind many first-generation immigrants of US Customs) to rejoin the living, he must find a dead relative who will give Miguel his or her blessing – preferably without conditions that require giving up his musical aspirations, and definitely before midnight on Día de Muertos. His spirit guides in this quest are his cross-eyed Xoloitzcuintli dog Dante and a disreputable-seeming dead guy named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), whom we first see disguised as Frida Kahlo in a futile effort to get back to visit his own family. Like the ka in ancient Egyptian mythology, the dead in Pixar’s version of Mictlan persist only so long as their memories are visually preserved in the world of the living, you see. (What Mexicans did before the invention of photography we are not told.) The sneaky, scurrilous Héctor, of course, is more than he seems.
While the film takes some narrative liberties with pre-Conquest indigenous folklore, in the main it seems respectful to its cultural sources, pounding hard on the importance of la familia and incorporating plenty of elements of contemporary Día de Muertos practices. I’m deferring the final word on this to people of Chicano/a extraction, for obvious reasons, but the movie is reportedly playing very well to audiences in Mexico itself (leatherworkers who want to know why artisan shoemaking is so lightly dismissed as an artform may be another story). Coco certainly shows evidence of being well-researched, and it succeeds best where it hews most closely to actual Mexican culture. Most obvious example: Its big showstopper song, “Remember Me,” composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, sounds about as Latin American as Frozen’s “Let It Go” sounded Nordic. Much more engaging are the more authentically folkloric musical numbers, such as a spirited (yes, I went there) staging of the traditional ghost ballad “La Llorona.”
What’s arguably most original about Coco is the matter-of-fact way in which it treats death, including the death of close relatives: not comfy narrative territory for non-Mexican Americans. It’s probably still too scary for very young children, but for older ones, it should stimulate some worthwhile conversation on deep subjects. The takeaway message – that the lost ones we love are still very much with us as long as we remember them – is a happy one.