Review: Coco

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Lee Unkrich

Writers: Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos

Genre: Musical, Fantasy

Rating: PG

Well…

Didn’t see THAT coming…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: For those who aren’t familiar with Day of the Dead traditions (skeletons, makeup to look like skeletons, beheaded/limbless skeletons, etc.), there’s potentially frightening imagery throughout the movie. Some violent moments played for humor, like scenes in which a character is crushed by a large bell. Skeletons come apart frequently. A character falls from a great height. Another is shown succumbing to poison. Characters are chased/pursued; some tension/peril as a result. Sad moment when a Land of the Dead figure dissolves into dust. Later, another popular character appears to fade, which could upset kids. Tear-jerking climactic sequence. Pepita, a large spirit guide animal, is like a huge flying griffin/panther, and she can be intimidating (growling, pouncing, etc.). Arguing.

Language/Crude Humor: None

Sexual Content: Kissing/romance in a movie-within-the-movie. A “nude” skeleton poses for an artist (played for humor).

Drug/Alcohol Use: Adult characters drink in a couple of scenes: a shot in one scene and drinks at a party.

Spiritual Content: Non-biblical depictions of the afterlife.

Other Negative Themes: Major theme of going against family to pursue personal dreams early on.

Positive Content:  Many positive messages: Remember that your family loves and wants the best of and for you. Love and accept who you are, and try to persevere and follow your dreams. Running away doesn’t solve anything. Teamwork and asking for help are important. Gifts and talents shouldn’t be ignored or suppressed; you shouldn’t have to choose between your family and doing what you love. Unconditional love is powerful. It’s never too late to forgive someone. Be grateful for what you have.

Miguel is talented, gifted, and enthusiastic. He makes some impulsive, risky, iffy decisions (from stealing de la Cruz’s guitar to running away from those who want to help him), but he ultimately recognizes the value of his family. Mama Imelda and Abuelita are very strict but also loving and affectionate; it takes time, but they eventually listen to what Miguel is trying to tell them. Hector is a trickster, but he ultimately wants to redeem himself in his family’s eyes.

Review

Contrary to popular impression, death is not a difficult concept for a child to understand or accept. All living things die, like the pet goldfish, or Fido, or Grandpa. There are even tragic situations of children who face death far sooner than most of us would wish. Because of this, I’ve never raised much consternation over family and children’s films and stories that deal with the harsh and ubiquitous reality of death. Thanks to the magic of Disney, nobody else seems to either. At the very least, they can’t without taking on a significant burden of proof.

With that said, I have found myself taking issue with death scenes in family/children’s stories that are quickly and conveniently reversed (see Frozen for a recent example from a movie I otherwise adore), as they tend to mitigate the most severe and important elements to the reality of death: it is irreversible, permanent, and all-consuming. Attempts to make these unsettling realities less unsettling, even in the context of fiction, do a disservice to the existential concerns of the audience as well as to the weight of the drama.

This is not to say that unconventionally light-hearted takes on the deceased and the afterlife are without merit, so long as they succeed in aiding us viewers to explore these harsh realities from a new angle, rather than evade or escape them. Tim Burton’s underrated Corpse Bride accomplished this quite effectively by giving a version of the permanence of death that can be accepted gracefully under the proper conditions.

Coco, the latest offer from the Pixar animation powerhouse, manages to maintain the permanent separation from life that death ensures us all while offering an opportunity to give higher regard to the morsel vestiges of life that death leaves behind to the living. Much like another woefully underrated title of similar aesthetic approach, 2014’s The Book of Life by Mexican animation artist Jorge Gutierrez, Coco finds its inspiration in the folklore associated with the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a day set aside to commemorate the deceased and, as it is believed, to allow the deceased one day of the year to revisit their loved ones in spirit.

I imagine that some viewers, especially Christians, will raise moral objections to the depiction of the afterlife that is not in compliance with sound biblical teaching on the matter. Among the many relics involved in the celebration of Día de Muertos is a large shrine-like ritual altar known as an ofrenda decorated with photos of departed family and garnished with Mexican marigolds believed to be necessary to invite the spirits of the deceased to the world of the living. Ironically, the Land of the Dead itself also seems to at least be just as lively as the world of the living (if not more so), though there is a possibility even for that state of life after death to be lost.

Part of the spiritual arrangement in the Land of the Dead is that the citizens there remain so long as they are remembered in the world of the living and their memory is properly passed down through the generations. If this condition is not met, the spirits of the deceased dissipate into oblivion (at least, that’s the case in Coco. In The Book of Life, those whose memories are lost in the living world get relocated to the hellish Land of the Forgotten).

If all this gives you cause for concern, dear reader, you are not alone. Even Steven Greydanus, a man I consider to be my critical superior, took issue with this unorthodox approach to the realm beyond the grave, feeling that it would be misleading to young minds developing in the faith. With all due respect, I must firmly disagree with this detraction by way of precedent. Through various works of folklore and myth, explicitly unbiblical depictions of the afterlife have been part of the imaginative psyche of Western Christian children for thousands of years, and can even be found in the very pages of holy writ itself. None of us would believe it to be in keeping with sound Christian doctrine to suggest that the saved in heaven (or at least the elite therein) will be able to have well-rounded intelligible conversations with the damned, even though that is precisely what is depicted in the epilogue to Our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

The counter to such possible misinterpretations is that, as all biblical scholars worth their salt knows, it is very hermeneutically unsound to infer ancillary points of theological doctrine from parables; stories that are by design simply meant to illustrate one specific point. It takes no ingenuity to surmise that it is far less hermeneutically sound to infer similar points of doctrine from Pixar movies–no matter how good they are on net balance. And yes, this one is REALLY good, though it may not seem that way at first. That certain arguably pagan elements regarding the afterlife are employed as useful plot mechanics (and that is what they simply are here: plot mechanics; not themes) shouldn’t unsettle any reasonable Christian conscious any more than the mythical tales of Elysium do.

Coco politely introduces us to the history of the Rivera family which rejects all musical talent and performance not only from the family but even from the surrounding community, instead, enforcing a family trade in shoemaking. This was due to a falling out between the great-great-grandparents of our hero, Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales), that involved the great-great-grandfather going off to pursue a career in music leaving the wife and daughter behind. As these stories tend to go, Miguel secretly loves music and practices the discipline in secret against his family’s wishes. This has also been a point of consternation for the few negative responses to Coco, who feel the “Junior Knows Best” trope has been run into the ground through several other films of the same sort and encourages unhealthily rebellious tendencies in young viewers.

While I can sympathize with this sort of concern to a degree, the spirit of holistic thought encourages me to submit an alternative angle. It was Denzel Washington who said repeatedly in recent interviews that “writers can only write what they know”. It’s not much of a far cry to suggest that a large number of the professionals who write and tell these stories featuring prodigiously creative youths whose works and passions are not only ruthlessly misunderstood but actively threatened by members of their dilettante family are simply giving voice to their own childhood experiences. If I’m permitted to briefly speak for myself, I can say that I relate to the idea a little too comfortably.

With that said, it should be noted that among Coco’s many accomplishments is that it takes a note from Disney’s last feature of Moana in that by pursuing his own personal passions, Miguel also manages to do honor and a great service by his whole family in the same stroke. Granted, he does some shady business in order to pursue that passion–up to and including grave-robbing–but his initial drive is effectively shown to be largely just as misdirected as his family’s aversion to his drive in one of the many turning moments in the film.  Much like Finding Nemo, this is one family tale in which both young and old learn a valuable lesson from their mistakes, and the story is that much better for it.

The arching plot here has been compared to yet another Pixar work–Brad Bird’s Ratatouille–many times by other reviewers. The parallels are uncanny, with a young aspiring creative talent venturing into a hostile environment against the will of an authoritarian parental figure through terribly unsuitable means while in the company of a deceased idol who vicariously offers guidance and motivation through a convenient motto. There’s also a major turning point centered on an epiphany regarding a main character’s familial past and a climactic confrontation with an unscrupulous IP thief bent on uprooting and capitalizing on the character’s legacy.

The emphasis on traversing to otherworldly supernatural plains in pursuit of an internal means of escape reminded me of another seminal animated feature with a sharply ethnic and cultural bent. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away might be a work of far greater depth and sophistication than anything on offer here, but there is a focus on a central initially untrustworthy character who is far more than what he seems; far more than what he even seems to think he is. Coco’s whole otherworldly traversal in its structure also bears some parallel to that of the Divine Comedy with its peaks, troughs, and even natural locales–especially in a key moment of revelation taking place in a cenote pit. Miguel even partners with a canine companion on his journey named “Dante”.

As a final note of comparison, in Coco I was reminded in some of the narrative and thematic strains of Kubo and the Two Strings with the tale of a disenfranchised young lad carrying an at least conditionally magical stringed instrument. Miguel also partners with an animal and a comical supporting character with a penchant for clumsy slapstick humor while engaging all manner of supernatural threat along the path to uncovering a family mystery. It can and has been asserted that with all these commonalities with other works of a similar vibe, Coco does very little in the way of offering anything new to the table. Be that as it may, I find no good reason to really mark that as much of a demerit.

The Anglican priest William Ralph Inge once quipped that “originality” is just undetected plagiarism. All art is theft, said Picasso. Ergo, everything that we see in the arts is at heart a combination of external influences that even the artist may not fully recognize. Never once has this per se been regarded as a mark of failure, even now. Arguably the most critically and commercially successful release in the video game industry this year is Cuphead, and that title is nothing if not a Frankensteinian homunculus of borrowed ideas. It is only if the final product is lacking in any unique soulful resonance and does nothing but represent the superficial elements of other accomplishments that a shortcoming is recognized.

As the audience and critics acknowledge, soulful resonance abounds all throughout Coco, from its musical selections to its vocal performances to a completely unexpected emotional powerhouse moment in its third act that not only serves as a grippingly cathartic scene in its own right, but also coats the whole drama in a winsome emotional pathos that demands to be revisited after the first viewing.

There are other thematic accomplishments that are deserving of praise and recognition. According to the folklore of Día de Muertos and the story of Coco, the deceased may revisit the living only if their photo is placed on the proper ofrenda to act as an invitation. Then the dead may cross a bridge of marigold petals after passing through a patrol of border security personnel (real slick move there, folks) with the petals acting as their guide. The memories not only of the deceased but also of the elderly are deeply cherished and held with great reverence both as a narrative device and as an overarching theme. In fact, I don’t think the elderly have been honored this much in an animated film since Up.

The honor and dignity given to senior citizens in particular and Mexican culture as a whole in Coco is what most will recognize as its greatest feature. I can’t say that I’m opposed to that. Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), who is not Mexican or even Latino voiced his apprehension in potentially doing a disservice to Mexican culture when he took the helm here. The fact that this is the first large-budgeted feature film with an all-Latino cast and currently the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico should set Mr. Unkrich’s mind at ease.

Even if that weren’t the case, all the people involved should be proud of what they have done here. While the advertisements for this film might have seemed grindingly familiar, that should not be treated as grounds for discouragement from viewing. What’s on offer here is certainly worth your time and patronage, dear reader. Don’t let it pass you by.

P.S.:

Theatrically, Coco is preceded by the short film Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, featuring the characters from Frozen. While much criticism has been launched against its length at 21 minutes, I can say that I was very much won over by the superior treatment to the characters and narrative here than what was on offer in the half-baked Frozen Fever short from 2 years ago. There are a few key moments of character development that are so well done and fitting that they almost seem like they were missing from the original film. At the same time, I’m getting more and more anxious about the prospect of a sequel every day. While I keep hoping and praying that my expectations are wrong, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure does well as a fine addition not only to the Frozen canon but to the holiday viewing tradition.

Positives

+ Breathtaking visuals + Excellent musical selections + Emotionally gripping + Multi-layered and dynamic plot + Perfect sense of closure

Negatives

- Very little in the way of original ideas - Some characters are underwritten

The Bottom Line

A lot of times I really love it when I’m wrong. This is one of those times. Treat yourself, dear reader. See Coco.

 

9

Tyrone Barnes

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