A very wise man has crafted a theory about a formula, ever present in Disney animated films and doubly so in Pixar movies of late. The Grumpy/Spunky formula paints the picture of an eager main character teaming up with a grounded reluctant companion journeying to a far off destination to affect some plot important change in the prior. Coco, much like Inside Out and Moana before it, once again sets its protagonist out on a seemingly similar journey, but what follows is one of the best crafted family focused tearjerkers in years.
To say the Coco is beautiful is a understatement akin to referring to bacon as a tasty breakfast side or Prince as a guitar player. Visually, Coco, particularly when our hero Miguel makes his way into Land of the Dead where the majority of the movie takes place, is like getting a new pair of glasses after 10 years of skipping the optometrist. The visual tour de force, massaging your brain by layering fluorescent beauty on top of traditional Mexican cultural references is worth the price of a admission alone.
What’s even more amazing than the beautiful world that Pixar has created is the appreciation and respectful handling of Mexican culture, particularly when it comes to an often misunderstood holiday. To most of the world, Dia de Muertos isn’t anything deeper than Mexican Halloween, a day for people to dress up like skeletons, eat churros and paint sugar skulls. Coco begins its story by impressing upon its audience the importance of this holiday to Mexican families who hope to pay respect to their dearly departed ancestors by celebrating their memories.
Our main character, Miguel Rivera opens the movie by narrating the history of his family as far back as the split between his great-great-grandmother and father, which sent the later on to a life of music and fame and the former towards a life of making shoes and despising her estranged husband and blaming all of music for his departure. So, of course, Miguel longs the express himself through the bane of his families existence, hoping to play his music and ascend to the heights of artistic excellence achieved by his hero Ernesto de la Cruz.
The family dynamic in the entirely matriarchal Rivera family is the lynch pin to the reverence shown to Mexican culture in Coco. People may see this as Pixar’s three years too late response to The Book of Life but, while I enjoyed that film as well, The Book of Life relied a little too heavily on comedic moments brought about by leaning into Mexican cliches that have been present in Hollywood for years. Coco chooses instead to only go as far as having its characters speak briefly in Spanish to remind you that this movie does indeed paint its story with a Mexican brush.
This refusal to frame the setting, people and customs as somehow exotic, which happens all too often in the waspy world of Hollywood, is what makes the whimsical nature of the story feel so welcoming and familiar. There are most assuredly nods to Latin culture that some audience members will recognize and enjoy more than others but at no time does it feel like a barrier to entry. Unsurprisingly so, this approach has catapulted Coco into the number spot in Mexican movie history.
It’s not just the beauty of this film, its respectful handling of an historically under-served culture, or even the music, which we’ll get to. Coco subverts a lot of the expectation while running parallel to all the tride and true tropes we’ve all become accustom to. Referencing the theory I talked about in the opening again, Coco seems to have a very clear direction once Miguel makes it to the Land of the Dead. He’s at odds with his family’s generations old grudge against music and through a series of traditionally respectful events and magically aided happenstance, finds himself on the path of the all too familiar hero’s journey.
There are points where the plot feels familiar and cliche, leading you in a direction that seems so obvious only to subvert expectation. What’s refreshing is that instead of these feeling like plot-twists for plot-twist’s sake, the switcheroos are met with a sense of relief, with the actual outcome almost always being preferred. These course corrections are bore from a cast of characters you genuinely care about. This may be a way to build in drama to what is ostensibly a children’s movie but as with all Pixar movies, there’s always something more going on.
The fact that Coco uses its music as not only a impetus for Miguel’s growth but a vehicle for plot development is a breath of fresh air. I’m a sucker for a good musical, and as a huge Toy Story fan I also love a movie that uses its original soundtrack as effectively as an action sequence. What Coco chooses to do by organically inserting its original songs into the story is gift us with entire slate of ear worm worthy songs, without tying them intrinsically into the plot itself. I don’t mind a little character development taking place during a quirky interlude but having a song that owns enough to get air play without explaining a character’s motivation is rad.
Coco is incredible and deserves as much recognition world wide as it has received in Mexico. It pays incredible homage to Mexican culture without ever slipping into parody or cliche and seeing brilliantly designed technicolor monoliths sitting atop Aztec pyramids, accessible only by a bridge of glowing marigold petals immerses you in the cultural history of la Dia de Muertos without most people ever knowing it. The animation is spectacular, and the voice talent is a whos’s who of Latin excellence. Coco‘s story is heart wrenching and beautiful even if at times it seems like you know exactly what’s coming next. And just in case you still can’t decide if this movie is worth seeing, there is a cool goofy dog in it.