“Never underestimate the power of music.” These words, spoken by the main character’s idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), are the heart and soul of Disney Pixar’s latest film, Coco. Lively, heartwarming, and genuine, Coco shows us the importance of family and appreciation for cultural traditions. Directed by Pixar veterans Lee UnKrich — director of Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo — and Adrian Molina, who directed Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur, the film featured the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Berna, and Benjamin Bratt. The film broke box office records in Mexico, passing The Avengers to become the highest grossing movie in the country’s history, and for good reason.
The animated film follows Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy with a lifelong dream of becoming an accomplished musician. After his great-great grandfather had left the family to pursue his own dream of music, the Rivera household, hurt and angry, established a generations-long ban on music. As his family prepares for the holiday Día de los Muertos, Miguel learns of a music contest: an opportunity to do what he loves most. He takes the advice of his deceased idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, and seizes his moment by literally seizing de la Cruz’s guitar from his altar. This act transports Miguel to the Land of the Dead, where he becomes a part of the spirit world. In order to return home, Miguel learns that he must receive a blessing from a family member, and attempts to find them in the afterlife. Along the way, he meets the endearing trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and together, the two of them travel through the Land of the Dead to reveal the secrets of his family heritage.
Coco presents a classic coming-of-age story, one that seems all too familiar, especially when looking at Pixar’s past films; and yet, it remains fresh and original, presenting a different perspective on familial ties through a new cultural lens. The importance of family, deceased or alive, is an enormous part of Latin culture, and is an enormous part of this movie. Miguel’s secret passion for music is made even more relatable when we consider the authority and influence elder family members can have, and his yearning for acceptance and support strikes a familiar chord. While honoring deceased family members isn’t a common aspect of American culture, the film makes us consider the importance of remembrance. In the film, the spirits in the Land of the Dead can experience something called a “Final Death,” which occurs when the last living person forgets them. As sad as it sounds, the film uses this concept to remind audience members to celebrate the lives of their own ancestors. Rather than coming across as sorrowful in these particular moments, Coco is vivacious and compassionate, urging audience members to celebrate their own life and the lives of others.
Right from the beginning, the film displays utterly beautiful visuals: the history of the Rivera family is told through moving papel picados (tissue paper banners with designs made by paper cutting), and the bustling neighborhood is full of colorful characters and mariachis. The story is intertwined with a swirl of bright saturated oranges, yellows, and blues, making the Land of the Dead even more fantastical and grand. The amount of love and care that went into this movie is evident in the sheer amount of detail put into the visuals, from the individual wrinkles in Grandma Coco’s face, to the millions of glowing orange flower petals that form the bridge to the afterlife.
Pixar films have always included music that pulls at our heart-strings, and Coco is no exception. From big show tunes to soft lullabies, every song features a Spanish guitar, Miguel’s instrument of choice, which adds to the Latin style of the film. The most memorable songs in the film are “Récuerdame” (or “Remember Me”), a tear-inducing lullaby; “La Llorona,” an energetic Latin pop song; and “Un Poco Loco,” a cheerful and humorous love song. While every song has a similar Latin flavor, each character has their own style, from de la Cruz’s grand spectacles to Miguel’s innocent and fun folk songs, adding another layer of personality to the film’s characters. Despite the many songs, the film never drags; in fact, every song serves a purpose and drives the story forward, giving the film life and exuberance.
But by far, the most successful aspect of Coco is its wholehearted embracement of Mexican culture. Not only is it a film about a Mexican family on a traditional holiday, it also features an entirely Latinx cast and a vast number of Latinx creators, animators, and consultants. It takes an opportunity to educate without sounding didactic, allowing audiences to experience for themselves the joy these cultural traditions bring. The film takes every opportunity to be as real and accurate as possible, from the Día de los Muertos -inspired designs of the spirits in the afterlife, to Miguel’s abuela’s weapon of choice — a chancla. It not only emphasizes the importance of diversifying our perspectives, it also emphasizes the need for understanding those perspectives. In a time where anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be rising, much of Latinx culture can be misconstrued or appropriated, and Coco presents us with a unique look into their rich culture and traditions in order to better understand it. The creators of the film and the film itself show us how cultural appreciation should be done and encourages the audience to take a moment to understand their perspective.
While it can be nearly impossible to pick a favorite Pixar film, Coco is easily in the top three. It’s a film that will make you cry, laugh, and cry again, and give you a deep appreciation for your own family. While it may be marketed as a kids movie, it is most definitely enjoyed by audiences of all ages and backgrounds. The film is simultaneously socially conscious and celebratory, providing a fun and appreciative look into Mexico’s rich culture. The combination of the endearing characters, spirited music, and astounding visuals makes Coco an absolute must-see.