Virginia: Welcome back to A Decade of Pixar, our series in which we review the last 10 years of the illustrious studio’s films. Today we’ll be taking a look at Coco, 2017’s Day of the Dead celebration packed with heart and with laughs to spare. Much like Inside Out and, surprisingly, Cars 3, Coco goes back to the roots of what people loved in Pixar’s early films. Coco introduces us to the plucky Miguel, who regales us with the story of his family and how they came to hate music thanks to his no-good flake of a musician grandfather. The setup of the film’s story seems more like a traditional Disney Princess movie at first; Miguel’s family have, incorrectly, of course, determined music to be the cause of all their problems. Miguel wants to become a singer and guitarist, but he can’t be honest with his family for fear of judgment and rejection. Similarly to the original How to Train Your Dragon, this premise sounds terrible, and it’s impressive how the film intelligently avoids some clichés while utilizing others to its advantage. What do you think of Coco, Munir?
Munir: I agree that the premise doesn’t sound like much when written on paper. The great thing is that Lee Unkrich and co. managed to create a richly-realized film that honors this tradition while also giving it a fun and heartfelt spin. Coco is notable for a number of reasons. It’s the first Pixar film featuring Latino culture and Latino characters in all the major roles. This is also reflected in the cast, with John Ratzenberger being the only white voice actor in the film. It’s also the first Pixar movie that can be labeled a musical. There are many songs used to advance the plot and that are sung by the characters. When it was initially announced, Disney tried to copyright the Dia De Los Muertos name, something that was met with an immediate backslash and made them retreat (fortunately). Also, like many of its predecessors, it was met with critical acclaim and box office success, and it won the studio their ninth and most recent Oscar for best animated feature. I think, as you said, Coco takes the clichés that could be found in this type of story and uses them to its advantage, creating a story with compelling characters, beautiful animation, and a valuable lesson about the importance of family and following your dreams.
V: Trying to copyright the holiday was evil and, frankly, pretty unintelligent, and Disney was very much asking for the backlash they got in response. That being said, I’m really not surprised given the fact that they are a multimedia conglomerate. They do bad things every day. The music in Coco is fantastic, and I like that these songs are all diegetic, in that characters within the story are actually singing them. This is very different from the approach Disney takes with their musicals, in which the singing is just an artistic representation of a character’s inner thoughts. “Remember Me” is also an unconventional song in that it starts out big and loud and gets more intimate in performances throughout the film. Usually, reprises of a song within a movie get grander and more bombastic until the end.
M: Agreed. While most of the film’s songs are big, colorful numbers, it’s interesting to see how “Remember Me” goes smaller and more intimate which each new iteration. It’s the perfect way to denote the relationship between Coco and Hector. I feel like the first time we hear it, as sung by Ernesto de la Cruz, it’s all big and flashy, but it rings hollow. The final time we hear it, we actually get the whole dramatic punch, and it closes the story nicely. What do you think of Ernesto de la Cruz? I think he’s a good and interesting antagonist, and I know it was unintentional, but it really reminded me of John Lasseter and the whole controversy of his departure.
V: I agree about de la Cruz. I love the introductory scene in which Miguel talks about how iconic he is, and his personal idolization of him. This is actually eerily similar to how some of us felt about Lasseter until the truth came out. Of course, here, the ugly truth is murder and betrayal, whereas with Lasseter, it was harassment of female employees. However, both men steal creative ideas from their peers (see the claims that Lasseter stole the idea for Cars).
M: Exactly. When Coco first came out, the allegations against Lasseter were fresh, and everyone was in shock. The sense of betrayal was very similar to what Miguel felt once he knew the truth. The difference is that, in Coco, De La Cruz was ultimately condemned to oblivion, while Lasseter just found another job. Going back to the movie, as a Latino, I feel this film really captures the essence of the culture. I’m not Mexican, but I found many similar traits that I guess are typical in most Latino cultures. The strong and bossy “abuelita,” the strong bonds of family and, sometimes, the difficulty to break from some traditions to try something new. I feel like the film really captures that experience and presents fully realized characters and not just stereotypes, which would have been the easy way to go.
V: Here, I must admit that I haven’t had that much exposure to the culture overall. I have lived my whole life in East Tennessee, and while there are Latinos and other groups here, the most I’ve seen of their culture has been at restaurants, sadly. That being said, Coco feels like stepping into another world in a way that something like The Book of Life (another film that I adore) doesn’t. Film is an astounding medium because it uses picture and sound to transport the audience to whole new worlds. While the Land of the Dead is a visual wonder, even the regular, living world the film presents is different from what I’ve experienced in my life. As such, even Miguel’s everyday life is something new and exciting for myself and countless other viewers.
M: That’s the beauty of what Pixar created: a specific movie that could be enjoyed by everyone in the world regardless of geography or culture. It’s also interesting that you mention The Book of Life. When Coco was first announced, I remember there was a backlash (aside from the whole trademark debacle) because some people were already comparing it to The Book of Life. I prefer Coco too, but I also enjoy Book of Life very much, and I don’t see why there can’t be more than one film about a specific holiday. After all, we have countless films about Christmas, Valentine’s, etc.
V: Yes! I completely agree! It’s acceptable to have any number of movies about other holidays, even religious ones like Christmas. Yet the moment there were two films about the Day of the Dead, people lost their minds. Book of Life is a wonderful movie that I would recommend to anyone, though Coco is technically superior and overall even more to my liking. I also wrote a piece comparing them once. Do you have a favorite scene in Coco, Munir?
M: I have several, actually. One that I love is when Miguel crosses to the Land of the Dead, and it’s explained how it works with custom patrols and everything. That’s the type of world-building that Pixar excels at, and it’s delightful every time I see it. I also love the scene where Mama Imelda sings again in front of all the people when they are trying to stop Ernesto, I feel like she finally lets go of her grief and anger and reconnects with something she had loved forever, which was music. And, of course, the final reprise of “Remember Me” part at the end when Coco remembers her dad. What about you?
V: I agree entirely. I would also add the scene at the very end in which Miguel sings “Proud Corazón,” and we see Coco, Hector, and Imelda reunited. After the sorrow and distress we feel upon hearing Hector’s reprise of “Remember Me,” this final sequence provides one of the most joyous, satisfying endings in recent memory. Although the context and resolutions are completely different, it reminds me of how I feel at the end of Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast.
M: What do you think of the characters? I really like Miguel as a lead. He’s passionate and a little impulsive, but his journey is one I very much understand. Following your dreams while also trying to live up to your family’s expectations is hard, and something I’ve experienced firsthand (and I guess many also have). His arc is very compelling and satisfying. Hector begins as a sidekick, but he ends as a co-lead because his desperation of not being forgotten is also very palpable and heartfelt. The rest of the supporting cast serves the story well, and their respective storylines conclude satisfyingly by the film’s end.
V: I agree. It can be hard to write child characters and keep them interesting and three-dimensional, but Pixar has proven time and again that they know the secret. Miguel’s arc and struggle are very relatable, as you mention. Even if you haven’t gone through exactly what he does, you can understand his motivation and choices. They do a great job in making characters like Imelda feel every bit as justified as Miguel in their convictions. We know that they have misplaced the true source of their problems and that, eventually, Miguel needs to pursue his dreams with their support. However, he’s also not entirely right, and their motivations are explored enough to explain their behavior. This is exactly what I wanted from Brave; I wanted to be shown more of Elinor’s perspective and to feel more sympathy for the bratty Merida. Despite using so many well-worn tropes, Coco utilizes them exceptionally well and excels at exploring its characters. I also agree about what a good character Hector is. He gets some of the film’s biggest laughs while also being one of the most tragic Pixar characters. He is one of the biggest reasons the ending is so cathartic.
M: Another thing that I can say about Coco is that it is very memorable. When we discussed Finding Dory, we agreed that it was a very well-made film, but nothing stood out, and it was kind of forgettable. With Coco, on the other hand, I can say that many moments have stayed in my mind since I first saw it in theaters. Why do you think that is? Both films have good qualities in story, animation, character development, etc., but why does Coco stand out more than Dory?
V: It would be easy to say that Finding Dory is simply outshone by an outstanding first film, a handicap from which Coco doesn’t suffer. However, I think that great movies are made by great characters and powerful themes. Dory has pre-established characters that we all love, but I would say that the new characters it introduces pale in comparison to those both in Coco and Finding Nemo. In addition, as I mentioned in our Finding Dory review, I find its exploration of Dory’s disability to be somewhat confused and messy. In the end, Dory overcomes her situation by remembering things in spite of her short-term memory loss. This doesn’t make sense logically, and thematically it weakens the film. In Coco, several powerful themes are explored, such as memory (like in Dory, but in a different sense), family, loss, and as you mentioned, Mexican culture.
M: Agreed on that front. I think Dory did a good job, but in the end, it was a more “routine-like” job rather than something genuinely remarkable like Coco. To sum up, I think Coco is an absolute winner and one of Pixar’s strongest efforts. Boasting beautiful animation, well-rounded and compelling characters, great songs, and a powerful story honoring a Latino tradition, Coco is another Pixar classic destined to be loved for generations to come.
V: Agreed whole-heartedly. Coco is my favorite Pixar film of this decade, and I would recommend it to anyone. As you said, the setting is very specific, but we can all relate to this family, cry with them, and cheer when things go right.
M: That’s it for today. What do you think about Coco? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to check back for our review of what’s perhaps Pixar’s most anticipated sequel, Incredibles 2!