Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.
The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.
This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.
Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.
These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.
All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.
There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.
Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.
The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.
It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.
All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.
One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.
Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.
Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.