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Coco: Magical, heart-warming family story during Day of the Dead

With wondrously textured designs for rich Mexican cultural heritage, Coco tugs the right heartstrings and exhilarates us with its transcending power.

After settling in their theater seats, Coco’s viewers must endure 20-odd minutes of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. This loathed short is about Olaf and his (mis)adventure before Christmas for the cynical Disney to sell more merchandise (Elsa and Anna’s attire differ from theirs in Frozen). That’s a downer, but the main course reinvigorates its audiences’ appetite as Pixar’s beloved brand of storytelling serves another splendid animated film to the holiday season.

Generations of the shoemaking Rivera family has a tragic beginning: a father who left his wife, Imelda, and infant daughter Coco to pursue his music career. Or so we’re told in an expository opening accompanied by artfully rendered animations on papel picado banners. Following Imelda’s grief and new career decision, her predecessors learned to hate music—the day-dreaming aspiration that took away their unfortunate matriarch’s provincial happiness. Things go a different route for her great-great-grandson Julio, sorry, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, a young mariachi performer) when the 12-year-old rebel develops a burning dream for music. He looks up to Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, necessarily vain and self-serving), a famed musician who was crushed to death by a church bell. (Disney is bold with dark humor as the writers bait laughter out of the audiences by death scenes.) To nurture his music dream, Miguel has a secret hideout where he learns guitar and sings along with de la Cruz’s songs—free of obstruction from his strict grandmother, Abuelita (Renée Victor, Weeds).


After a fallout with his conservative family, Miguel finds a surprising discovery that de la Cruz might be his ancestor. Determined to enter his town’s talent show, the eager boy steals the late star’s guitar from his mausoleum to use for himself. Upon the first note Miguel plays, a mystical spell spurs him into a literally out-of-this-world adventure across a marigold bridge, where he meets self-discovery, funny sidekicks, and an antagonistic force too mighty. Aiding Miguel in his baby steps into the other world are Dante, his sleazy yet charming Xolo dog, and Héctor (a whimsical performance from Gael García Bernal), an unruly con-man whom nobody remembers. Miserably wandering on the other side of the marigold bridge, Héctor might be selfish and squeamish, but this nuanced character hides more heartbreak than expected.

Headstrong and passionate with a signature howl, Miguel is relentless, but deus ex machinas come to him once or twice. In most aspects, the boy is a less compelling main character than Chihiro in the legendary Spirited Away, another animated film about a kid who must return from a strange realm of spirits and deceits. I'm just thankful the plot doesn’t kidnap its protagonist the way Finding Dory did.


In the same progressive direction of last year’s Moana, Coco delves into the bildungsroman tale of a non-white youth torn between restrictive family tradition and their own ambition for something greater. Thematically, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, known as Day of the Dead, is the next step for the House of Mouse’s redemption of their sinful past by representing non-white ethnicities. And despite this theme, Coco is not the same as Fox’s The Book of Life—one concern from moviegoers since Coco was announced.

The script (by Matthew Aldrich and Latino co-director Adrian Molina) takes on this coming-of-age narrative and embellishes it with a conservative family, a strange land with promising outlets of personal endeavors, and a myriad of outlandish set pieces for our hero’s developmental stages. Of course, a moment comes when Miguel steps up in front of a crowd and sings his heart out, realizing his potential in an entertaining song called “Un Poco Loco.”


After recent successful Disney originals, this could have been just another entertaining exercise of the wholesome Pixar formula (with riffs from Wizard of Oz and Spirited Away), if not for the exotic Land of the Dead and a colorful, believable representation of the Mexican culture. Directors Lee Unkrich (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) and Molina pay attention to combining little bits of worldbuilding and character introduction—from bureaucratic trivialities, recognizable infrastructures, entertainment events, even a remark regarding allergy and a Frida Kahlo cameo.

The Day of the Dead comes to the screen neither morbid nor unadorned—thanks to the visual dynamic of character design, manifold movements, and a vivid color palette. In this delightful mix of the beatific and the macabre, graveyards are full of food and candles from families, who come here to pay respect to their deceased relatives. The artists at Disney dole out multicolored streamers, neon lights, and street decoration, thus rendering bustling yet eye-catching sequences via exquisite framing of characters against detailed backgrounds. Orange is the key color—a fine choice of artistry because orange marigold petals are essential to Miguel’s adventure. They connect the dead and the living, making up the bridge between two worlds. For Miguel to return, he must be blessed by one of his dead relatives in the form of a glowing marigold petal.


Inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are fanciful and gorgeously dressed without losing their rural impression. Viewers will adore the neon-lit alebrijes—spirit-guiding animals, including the winged, ram-horned jaguar of the Rivera family. Skeletal spirits are lovable with smart body humor, and there isn’t any scene where clumsy hands pick up other body parts. Unlike in many watered-down versions of non-white folklore, Mexican mythology is blended into the story and its idea of the second death—spirits are disintegrated when no living person remembers them anymore.

Coco isn’t a musical as much as a movie about music, but its soundtrack wins our hearts by being integral to character moments. Two versions of the song “Remember Me” (by Frozen’s duo of Oscar winners Bobby Lopez and Christine Anderson-Lopez) play in two settings—one is superficial and grandiose, the other intimate—to full dramatic effect. The only song in Mexican is saved for the third act during an unplanned reconciliation between two long-separated characters. Because Coco has a lot to accomplish, the third act stumbles into plot beats that must be there to tie up all story elements about the Rivera family.


Family is the indisputable crux of Coco as the film tackles mature themes of spiritual inheritance and the desire for one’s own legacy. After a few belly laughs, serious issues arise in the characterization of Miguel’s relatives. Abuelita Elena isn’t just the sassy Grandma Exposition; she imposes the scornful restriction on Miguel so intensely that the angered boy verbally disrespects his family’s ofrenda before she wrecks his guitar. Miguel’s lackadaisical parents—yeah mama and papa aren't dead for a change—are pushed to the background because of the emphasis on transgenerational conflict. Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach, cynical but sweet), appearing in the Land of the Dead with her children and grandchildren, is an empowered figure of womanhood and has a complex relationship with her estranged husband. However, Mamá Coco (famous Mexican actress Ana Ofelia Murguía offers her singing voice with Gonzalez) holds the heart of this film, as its title suggests. She’s in her somber senescence, silently waiting for her most treasured piece of childhood memory to awake. This leads to an ending that packs the emotional and narrative one-two punch for its already misty-eyed viewers.


Delivering a moral lesson for all ages, Coco presents another answer to the secular question about individualism and family expectation: the drive and purpose of our ambition sometimes point back at our hearth and home. With wondrously textured designs for rich Mexican cultural heritage, Disney/Pixar magic once again tugs the right heartstrings and exhilarates us with its transcending power.