“Coco” (2017) Review

Coco (2017)

Dir. Lee Unkrich; Anthony Gonzales, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
[3.5 out of 4 stars]

Coco opens with a slight twist on Disney’s usual title sequence: adding to the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle at twilight is an odd cacophony of music, reminiscent of what would happen if you knocked over a drum set while trying to tune a Mariachi band. The scene morphs into vibrant red, blue, and green colours which form a traditional banner called Papel Picado that reads “Coco.” It’s a bit bizarre and stands for something like a synecdoche for the film as a whole: Coco actively represents traditional Mexican culture in a more respectful way than prior Disney attempts, it looks more vivid and colourful than other Disney films, and yet sounds musically confusing and disappointing. It’s an enjoyable film, charming and playful as most Disney-Pixar animated productions are; but it’s neither as innovative nor as flawless as it could have been.

Coco begins just before the Día de Muertos celebration in Santa Cecilia, a small village in Mexico. Musically-inclined twelve-year old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzales) and his family  are preparing for the festival. They create a beautiful shrine (called an Ofrenda) to remember their ancestors, complete with candles, marigolds, and old photographs, one of which is torn to hide Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, a famous musician. Ever since he abandoned his wife and child, Miguel’s family has banned music from even being mentioned. Coco tells the story of the charmingly stubborn young boy’s quest to discover his ancestor’s identity and become like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the “greatest musician of all time.” But on the night of the festival, supernatural events whisk Miguel into the realm of his ancestors, visualised as dancing skeletons. He is taken through the border control and Disneyland-inspired entryway into the Land of the Dead, complete with visa stamps (“Anything to declare?”) and rotating doors, and he enters into a spectacular city of bright houses and alleyways, stacked haphazardly on top of each other.

The film’s second half, which takes place in the Land of the Dead, introduces Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a roguish trickster (think: Captain Jack Sparrow) who agrees to help Miguel return to the land of the living, if he’ll take back a photo of Héctor, thereby saving him from being forgotten. According to tradition, if you are entirely forgotten by your family, you will go through “the final death” and fade from existence, even in the Land of the Dead. Miguel and Héctor track down de la Cruz, hoping to get his blessing, and Miguel plays for de la Cruz, who rejoices in having a musically-inclined great-great-grandson. But it turns out that for de la Cruz, who lives in a palatial penthouse, success came at a cost. I won’t say any more, since Coco is as much a mystery as anything else, but the plot isn’t exactly over after their reunion: the rest of the story unfolds with chases, flying spirit animal guides called Alebrijes, long-lost relatives, and, above all, the power of music, leaving one of the more satisfying endings I’ve seen in awhile. Touching, yet not overly sentimental, things just seem to fall perfectly into place.

Coco also represents a new phase in Disney’s films about cultural traditions. Historically, Disney has failed to appropriately incorporate non-Western cultures into its canon: until the 90s, very few animated Disney films featured non-white characters, and those that did — for example, Peter Pan’s portrayal of Native American Indians in 1953; the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955); pretty much all of The Jungle Book (1967) and especially the hit song “I Wanna Be Like You,” which informs the audience that it’s better to be white — relied on overtly racist tropes. In the 90s, a new phase was ushered in, as films like Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998) took on cultural representation from a new standpoint, trying to open up young audiences to a multiplicity of cultures rather than the same European princess tales. Yet these failed ultimately in actually researching those cultures. Aladdin reinforces conceptions of the East as barbaric (in the opening sequence the merchant sings: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”); Pocahontas white-washes American colonial history; anecdotally, both Aladdin and Mulan use the same voice-actress for both Princess Jasmine and Mulan’s sung voices, representing traditional Orientalising practices of assuming that everything east of Istanbul is all the same. (For a more complete list, check out posts like this one). Even as recently as The Princess and the Frog (2009), caricatures of dialect in the mouths of non-white characters like the Cajun fireflies hint at latent racism.

Not until Moana (2016) does Disney seem to turn over a new leaf. Moana, a film about an independent indigenous girl from Polynesia who must save her island and family from an evil mystical force, was probably the first Disney film to be both narratively refreshing and appropriately representational of a cultural group: Polynesian culture was actively researched and represented (Auli’i Cravalho, for example, who voices Moana, is of native Hawaiian descent) and Moana isn’t shunted into traditional gender norms. Still, as this Smithsonian article demonstrates, simply studying a culture isn’t always enough to break out of caricatures – Moana still isn’t perfect. Coco, however, seems to represent another step forward. The film and its creators actively explore cultural identity with an eye for respect. Pixar sent teams to Mexico to research traditions, and many of Coco’s voice-actors are of Latin American origins themselves. This gives the film a more authentic rather than touristy feeling, and this is manifested in positive reviews by Latino film critics – one even calling the film “A blissful hug of acceptance.”

Miguel and his family are obviously proud of their culture, and most of the film deals with family traditions from an insider’s perspective. At the same time, Coco does a good job of respectfully explaining important traditions to those of us who aren’t necessarily familiar with them: the film never makes you feel like an outsider, but rather warmly welcomes willing audiences with open arms. Compare, for instance, nearly parallel scenes in Mulan and Coco of the protagonists’ ancestors rising from the grave. In Mulan, the ancestors, called from their shrine by the distinctly non-Chinese voice of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu,  are voiced by white actors, playing on American-based humour. Two of the ancestors even recreate a sort of Chinese version of Wood’s “American Gothic.” In Coco, however, these characters are voiced by Latin American actors, and, although they’re still allowed a good dose of humour and witty dialogue, they’re respectfully and complexly portrayed. The joke in Mulan is that the ancestors are traditional and inept, rudely interrupting each other to try to force Mulan back into a domestic role, while eventually failing. In Coco, however, the ancestors have unique, distinguishable personalities. Miguel honours them and signals to us that we should too by stressing the importance of the altar in his voice-overs. Invocations of Mexican culture, through the figure of Frida Kahlo, traditional music, etc., help the film actively foster respect for cultural identity, and viewers will leave Coco more aware of Mexican traditions.

Coco also borrows some narrative structure from Moana. For one, there’s no forced romance plot: Moana is not married off in the end, and Miguel is allowed to just be a kid. Also refreshing is Miguel’s sidekick, a hairless street dog called a Xolo (one of Mexico’s national animals) whom he names “Dante,” possibly a reference to the Italian poet of the epic about a journey into the stratified realms of the afterlife – a clear parallel to the structure of Coco. Dante, whose long tongue wags incessantly, is (aside from a couple barks) completely silent, thus leaving the humour and witty banter to Héctor, who does it a whole lot better than most of Disney-Pixar’s talking animal sidekicks. This was something Moana brought to the forefront, demonstrating that Disney has finally learned that there’s a reason animals don’t usually talk.

Where Coco departs slightly from its predecessors is in its visual setting. This is seen best in the Land of the Dead. Whereas most Disney films feature the same polished colour scheme, Coco ushers in a new, rougher look: the houses of the city are less glossy and more matte, as if painted with pastels rather than the highlighters usually seen in Disney’s films. With its stained-glass houses and transparent lights, the Land of the Dead’s haphazard cityscape looks almost inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Visual imagery in Coco is also important for the story’s development: the worn-out, grainy photograph is called up multiple times as an anchor for Miguel’s family identity, and Ernesto’s iconic guitar functions as a symbol of his fame – and yet, both of these items are not what they appear: it is almost as if the film is guiding us to not accept what first strikes the eye. Of the recurring images, the bright orange marigold flowers stand out beyond all others. These traditional flowers, which float through the film like a trail of memories, also make up the bridge which links Miguel’s homeland with the Land of the Dead. Flower petals form columns rising up from the dark abyss into a shimmering golden-orange dreamscape. They act as a magical force: as Miguel walks, they swirl around him; when he strums his guitar, they appear to dance like marionettes come alive. This is overall what Coco brings to its visuals: despite the emphasis on the dead, Coco is full of life. The facial features of Coco’s characters are bold and defined, and appear to really breathe: even the skeletons’ mask-like faces are so full of expression (and comic elements, like mustaches and eyebrows) that they appear somehow more full-of-life than the living characters in other animated films.

Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who loves musicals, my biggest complaint about Coco is about the music. For a Disney-Pixar film, and especially one about a wannabe musician, Coco left quite a bit to be desired when it comes to the soundtrack. Michael Giacchino’s guitar-strumming background music adds nicely to the atmosphere, but it does little more structurally than enhance the visual setting to which it pales. Unlike Aladdin or The Lion King (1994), which work beautifully as musical theatre productions, Coco’s songs, of which there are barely three in the whole film, are disappointingly incomplete, more like B-side covers than original numbers. In fact, the best song of the soundtrack is an adaptation of the traditional “La Llorana”Although songs like “Un Poco Loco,” a fun duet performance between Miguel and Héctor for a large crowd, are amusing at the time, they barely hold one’s attention for their duration and are forgotten immediately afterwards. The roaring applause that follows that song seems contrived and, frankly, unbelievable. The biggest disappointment, however, is the film’s headlining song, written by Kristen and Bobby Lopez (an highly talented couple who wrote, among other things, “Let it Go” for Frozen [2013]). This song is titled “Remember Me,” which is highly ironic, given that it is one of the most forgettable songs in a Disney-Pixar film to date. Even though it’s reprised a half-dozen times throughout the film (already a sign that there wasn’t much material to deal with,) I can hardly remember a single note, and have no desire to subject myself to another listen-through. 

Overall, Coco is a delightful film, filled with witty dialogue, beautiful scenery, and an enjoyable, if predictable, plot. I’m not quite as sold on the film as some other reviewers, who have hailed it as an instant classic, but I do think it’s one of the better Disney-Pixar films of the last decade. Incorporating some elements which will appeal to older audiences, Coco is definitely a step-up from the entirely forgettable Brave (2012) or the at-times painfully childish Frozen, but I can’t imagine it will outshine the latter’s popularity or Moana’s innovation, even if it is structurally better and more culturally respectful.

~~~

Thank you to Meleena Leon for help with the Spanish translations and advice on traditions.


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