'COCO' Delights with Visual Feast and Touching Story
Abuelita wields the almighty “chancla” with experience and fortitude in COCO. Photo: Disney-Pixar
Review by Alci Rengifo
Coco is that kind of family film that manages to tackle a tricky subject with heart and sensibility. Disney and Pixar have scored yet another visual achievement here, but this one is particularly notable for the way it uses Latin American culture to explore themes of death and memory. Visually, it is an enrapturing movie.
The iconography of Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition is used with elegance and fun, capturing the tradition’s unique mixture of remembrance and celebration. The kind of romance associated with Latin folk culture is beautifully celebrated with dramatic energy. But this is a warm-hearted movie that probes deeper into the meaning of family and independence. It dives into Mexican culture with infectious gusto and joyous music, but its central narrative has a universal power.
The story is set in the rural Mexican town of Santa Cecilia where we meet Miguel (Anthony González), a young boy who dreams of being a musician as he gets into trouble with his faithful dog Dante. Miguel’s great idol is the local legend, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who left town to become a famous artist and met his untimely end under a crashing bell during a final performance.
But Miguel’s cobbler family has banned music under the watchful eye of his stern Abuelita (Renee Victor). The animosity stems from the family history revolving around Miguel’s great-great grandparents. His great-great grandfather also had dreams of making music and left his great-great grandmother behind in Santa Cecilia, never to return. The last, surviving link to this history is Miguel’s beloved great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), who sits in her chair serenely as the days go by.
Miguel finds reasons to suspect he might be related to De La Cruz, and as the town prepares to celebrate El Día de los Muertos, Miguel runs off and finds himself in the crypt containing the singer’s remains. Through a supernatural occurrence, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, a bustling city of souls seeking to revisit—for just one night, of course—their living relatives who, in turn, keep the memories of their departed loved ones alive through “ofrendas” (offerings).
He immediately finds relatives, including his great-grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who refuses to give him her blessing to be a musician. With the help of a mischievous skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal), Miguel is determined to find De La Cruz and get the elusive familial approval he needs to pursue his dreams, in herited he suspects, from his mysterious forebear.
Coco is both a fun time and a sumptuous garden party of culture. The Land of the Dead as imagined by directors Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich is a brilliant, baroque vision of an afterlife set in a place that looks like a revival of 1950s Mexico City. Train stations, transit points and buildings look like underworld versions of the Mexico one sees in the golden age films of Pedro Infante, Silvia Pinal and Cantinflas. Everything is cast in a luminous other-worldly radiance.
The towering redoubt where De La Cruz hosts a massive Day of the Dead rave has the look and texture of an old Hollywood mansion, complete with a marvelous pool and ballroom full of the ofrendas his fan base has sent from the beyond. There are great tributes to Mexico’s soap opera and classic film culture, and historical figures are treated with sly humor.
For example, Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) appears as a diva designing the stage on which De La Cruz will perform. She envisions a towering cactus through which copycats of herself will appear. It’s a witty, satirical take on the fact that Frida has gone the way of Che Guevara in becoming kitsch. De La Cruz himself is an homage to a pantheon of Mexican crooners such as Vicente Fernández and Antonio Aguilar.
But the filmmakers also imbue the story with significant cultural references, often couched with almost poetic lyricism. One of the finest is the bridge between the world of the dead and the living. It is a glowing set of pathways made-up of marigold flowers, which are part of the Day of the Dead ceremonial tradition. Even Miguel’s loyal dog Dante—named for the real life 14th Century Italian poet Dante Alighieri who conjured his own journey through the afterlife in the book-length poem aptly titled Divine Comedy—is a nice touch. He’s a Xolo (pronounced “cholo”) dog, a hairless domesticated breed that was favored since the days of the Aztec empire.
The town of Santa Cecilia is imagined with a sharp authenticity reminiscent, albeit with stylized rural flourishes and details, of colonial era pueblos such as Oaxaca. The cast itself features numerous prominent Mexican, Chicano and Latino actors, among them: Edward James Olmos as a sad, hammock-swaying skeleton named Chicharrón; and even veteran filmmaker Alfonso Arau, the voice of Miguel’s grandfather, Papa Julio. It is Arau’s best work since Zapata (2004), his less than stellar Alejandro Fernández star vehicle which, although ambitious, failed to live up to Arau’s timeless Like Water for Chocolate.
The popular Day of the Dead stock imagery of skeletons and skulls becomes a vividly rendered motif. Skeletons inhabit the Land of the Dead. They, along with everything else appearing on the screen, including a bone-colored guitar, pulse with the color and energy of folk art come to life. Hector, a bony jangle of rattling twists, bends and turns is hilarious as he attempts to strike a deal. He will help Miguel find De La Cruz if Miguel will take his picture back to the world of the living, so that he may be remembered and not forgotten.
Coco also addresses cross-cultural themes involving family with sensitivity, underscoring the large, extended Latino family as a uniquely positive expression of Latin American cultural tradition while exploring issues of abandonment and hurt with tact and tenderness. Mama Coco is a great creation, manifested with such warmth that anyone with a 97-year-old grandmother (including this reviewer) can’t help smiling at the image on the screen.
Little quirks common in Latino homes are instantly recognizable, like when Abuelita asks Miguel if he wants to eat more tamales and makes it obvious she’s not really asking, but telling. In a surprising switch for a Disney production, Coco examines, essentially, the heavier themes of death and the passing on of relatives.
Yet the film is never too dark or brooding because, unlike the Western perception of the death as a ghoulish Grim Reaper, Day of the Dead is a way to playfully mock mortality and remember loved ones. Death is regarded as a journey through the cycle of life and a yearly return to visit with the living rather that a sad or tormented finale.
This being a Disney/Pixar production, one expects good music, and we surely get it. The score by Michael Giacchino is a lush orchestral maneuver featuring traditional Mexican melodies alongside a survey of the diverse genres comprising Mexico’s vast musical patrimony, from folk to grupero to that all-famous romantic ballad.
Scenes where Miguel performs in the Land of the Dead resonate with rhythmic electricity. The songs by Kristen Anderson-López and Robert López are full of catchy escapism. “Un Poco Loco,” for example, is a bright, cheerful love song, while the no-less-memorable “Remember Me” was clearly meant to elicit tears. And, indeed, it does not fail to deliver in the waterworks department.
Coco is a guaranteed good time for younger viewers. Yet it’s full of the great and accessible artistry, pathos and music even most grown ups will also be certain to appreciate. It’s a real delight.