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Pixar Sundays: Coco (2017)


Disney really loves cultural appropriation. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since the 90’s they’ve been portraying all sorts of cultures on screen to varying results. Some have worked like Moana and even Lilo & Stitch, others have failed like Pocahontas and Brave, and some have just wound up in the middle like Mulan and The Princess and the Frog. But there is good intention behind these attempts regardless, and Disney and Pixar should continue to explore the world for new storytelling avenues, especially is they follow more in the footsteps of Coco.
Coco is Lee Unkrich’s first movie for Pixar since Toy Story 3 and its’ the studios’ last original movie until at least 2020. Surrounded by Finding Dory and Cars 3 on one side, and The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 on the other, Coco is one wholly unique gem from Pixar, and it certainly sets an example for why there should be more.
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, attempts to steal Ernesto’s guitar, and winds up in the Land of the Dead where he needs the blessing of a relative to return him to Earth. Having only until sunrise to do this, he teams up with a poor deceased con-man called Hector and an excitable dog called Dante.
This movie’s world is terrifically realized, and while it’s pulling from a lot of Mexican folklore and iconography, it’s still very creative in how it presents this tapestry. The spirits of the honoured dead appear at the tributes laid by their families in a manner visually akin to Kubo and the Two Strings. I love that the bridge between worlds is a literal bridge made of autumn leaves, and it’s absolutely beautiful. And the Land of the Dead is more than just a metropolis of skeletons, it’s pervaded by a constant atmosphere of joy and celebration. But the less-imaginative relatable city set-up is fun too, with customs agents guarding the bridge like an airport and accountant-like figures maintaining things like family curses. In all of this, the animation is terrific, vibrant, and a colourful feast for the eyes. A superbly eclectic film, it has a marvellous energy but relative pace. While the skeletons are animated to a particular exaggerated style, there’s a realism to the humans, particularly Miguel’s great-grandmother, the titular Coco -with intricate wrinkles and detail lining her aged and frail features, instantly forcing you to sympathize with one of the films’ less likable characters, her caring daughter and Miguel’s strict grandmother Abuelita. But this dissonance in design isn’t really felt, perhaps because the skeletons naturally come off as stripped versions of the human characters.
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. He also loves his family which similar movies involving this kind of conflict don’t usually show. In fact, very importantly the whole Rivera clan shows a great degree of love for each other even in the moments when they’re in conflict. And it’s the reason Miguel can’t just lie about giving up music and why he’s all the more determined to find a relative who appreciates his talent. But he’s still a twelve year old kid and makes some of the expected mistakes someone his age and in his situation would, such as the stealing of his hero’s guitar. From there his arc boils down to a standard morality lesson about appreciating what truly matters, but he has enough of a fun and engaging personality to be likeable through it. The scene-stealer of movie though is Hector, voiced magnificently by Gael Garcia Bernal. He’s the most interesting character with the most emotional motivation, having almost no one left alive to remember him, and no photos on an ofrenda guaranteeing him passage into the world of the living on Dia de Muertos. He assists Miguel on the condition Miguel rectifies this. 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 and isn’t quite as satisfying a character, but he does have a charismatic showmanship evocative of that brand of music-movie stars of the 1930s and 40s. His backstory is told by a narrating Miguel and is quite amusing, as is his relationship with Miguel when they finally meet. Dante the dog is a rather typical pet sidekick, very reminiscent of Gerald the one-joke sea lion from Finding Dory. He’s similarly animated, with vacant eyes and a doltish expression, and while he does serve a point (there’s a reason he crosses over into the Land of the Dead with Miguel), he’s probably the weakest character tagging along for the adventure. Alanna Ubach is terrific as Miguel’s great-great grandmother Mama Imelda, whom he runs into a couple times in the Land of the Dead, and Renee Victor is pretty decent as Abuelita. There are entertaining side characters who, though minor, manage to be funny or enjoyable, like Miguel’s Papa Julio, Tia Rosita, and a pair of twin cousins. Also, Frida Kahlo has a presence in this movie, both as a disguise for Hector and as a humourously self-absorbed character herself. She’s voiced by Natalia Cordova-Buckley who’s fine, but a part of me would have preferred Salma Hayek. It’s great that this movie is fittingly populated with Mexican and Latin-American actors, including Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Cheech Marin, and Edward James Olmos.
What sets Coco apart though isn’t it’s cast or visuals or world or it’s pretty solid writing, but the way it utilizes culture. This 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. There’s a wonderful attention to detail all throughout and none of the characters are conveyed as particular stereotypes. There are shades, but even a figure like Miguel’s sometimes sassy grandmother has more character to her. However 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 as this movie does. Plenty of family films revolve around the moral of the importance of family, which from the opening scene of Miguel relating his family history, is the cornerstone of Coco. Any raw emotion to be derived from this movie (and there are definitely a few scenes going for sentimental impact) is directly linked to that value. But Coco chooses to address it through the distinct lens of Mexican heritage and the themes of Dia de Muertos. This movie’s not just set on the Day of the Dead, it’s thematically linked to the holiday. Oral family history is an important focal point of this film, the remembering of ones ancestors its emotional drive. Hell, the structure of the Land of the Dead depends on it. The significance of attaining familial blessing too 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 significant part of its story shows a real respect and understanding not often found in movies like this. In this respect, it certainly expresses a greater connection and love for Mexico than Brave did for Scotland. Where the story in Brave could’ve been told anywhere, the story of Coco is thoroughly Mexican.
That impression is certainly felt in Michael Giacchino’s score, which is very heavy on traditional Mexican folk motifs and mariachi music. It’s also unique for a Pixar movie that Coco features a number of songs, but unlike their musical counterparts over at Disney, they’re diegetically engrained into the story. What I like too is that most of the songs are sung in Spanish, the filmmakers confident enough to rely on their animation and the power of the music itself to enhance the moments. The Spanish-language songs are written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina (excepting the classic “La Llorona”), but the most frequent song is an English-language one called “Remember Me”, an in-universe standard of Ernesto’s, written by Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. And while “Remember Me” ironically doesn’t have the instant memorability of half the songs from that film, it is a nice little tune, subtle as it’s meant to be, but carrying a great meaning.
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. Even the ticking clock factor is related in a very Back to the Future fashion. That and a post-climax that’s a little underwhelming and goes a step further than it needs, are slightly off-putting. 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. With it, Lee Unkrich is well on his way to joining the Pixar giants. Not only is it entertaining and gorgeous to watch, but it demonstrates how to translate another culture right by using their own traditions to grow a story and even educate (at the very least, few leaving this movie will continue to think Dia de Muertos is essentially just “Mexican Halloween”). 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 no Pixar short before Coco. Instead, there was Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a Frozen spin-off/promo for the upcoming Frozen 2. And to be honest, I’m a little pissed off by that. The Pixar shorts have become an institution, a glimpse into the smaller efforts being made at the studio, and for good or bad you were always getting something out of them you haven’t seen before. Often, they’ve been wonderful works of creativity both in animation and storytelling. And so to nix one’s inclusion here is a great shame. The fact it’s replaced by a clear marketing tool that is a Disney product and by no means a Pixar one, is actually a little insulting. And this is coming from someone who loves Frozen.
In Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, it’s Christmastime at Arendelle, and while they put on a happy show for the people, Elsa and Anna lament that they don’t have much in the way of holiday traditions. So Olaf rides out with Sven to find traditions for them among the villagers. The biggest and most glaring problem here is that this isn’t a short, it’s a Christmas special. It’s over twenty minutes long, and instead of at the beginning of another movie, it belongs on ABC somewhere in mid-December, like those DreamWorks Christmas specials used to be. A lot of people going to see Coco aren’t there for Frozen and so its especially tiring if it’s not what you’re into. Secondly, it focuses primarily on Olaf, who was never one of my favourite characters from the movie, and while Josh Gad gets a funny line here and there, he’s not the most enjoyable character to spend a long period with. There’s also an implication that rubs me the wrong way, that gives Olaf credit for one of the most important emotional tenets of the original film. The special is not without it’s good moments: it does goes all out with movie-calibre animation and songs that are mostly just fine (interesting that of this double-feature the Frozen film is NOT the one with music by the Lopezes), except for the last one by Idina Menzel which is quite good. And it is nice to see these characters again, though it would have been a lot more welcome in a less extensive dose like the cute seven minute Frozen Fever.
It’s just immensely ironic that this short is preoccupied with the theme of tradition while stomping over one of Pixars’ greatest. It’s not horrible, just generally bad, and it clearly doesn’t belong intrusively in front of a subsidiary studios’ movie. The bad taste of it is drowned out by Coco itself, so don’t fret if you’re twenty minutes late to a screening. You’re not missing anything.

Thus we come to the end of Pixar Sundays. Pixar’s come a long way in just twenty-two years. When Toy Story came out, CG animation was a novelty and now it’s the norm. But Pixar always knew it couldn’t just get by on that, and the result of them caring about quality storytelling has led them to produce some of greatest films of the art form. They’ve had their misfires of course, but startlingly not many. At least two thirds of their films are good if not great, and they’re still one of the strongest animation companies in terms of their output. Pixar was this grand new thing when I was a kid, and I’m glad to see how much they’ve grown and adapted. To say they changed the animation industry would be an understatement of course, but they gave it more than just a new way of animating. They showed how there’s still a place for creativity in western animation; they brought heart and emotionality to the forefront -everyone assumes a Pixar movie’s going to at some point attempt to tug on your heartstrings, and other animated movies have adopted this tactic too. They know that despite the sometimes corny sentimentality, an emotional tether is a great way to reward audience investment, and when done right, can elevate the experience of watching the film. Pixar’s created a slew of great characters, unique stories, and provocative ideas and I hope they continue to do so. It’s been a pleasure to watch them all, many I’d seen before and many I’ll probably see again in the future. And despite this most recent substitution, I hope they continue to make short films to show ahead of their features. It seems for the moment Disney may have forgotten what great art these shorts can be, and how they can mould future animators and creators. No doubt Pixar’s going to be around for a while and I can’t wait to be there opening weekend of their future efforts.

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