The past is important. Our story is important. The truth is important. As much as Disney and Pixar’s new film, Coco, is a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist, Miguel, it’s also a journey of truth. One that weighs all its emotional power on revelation and forges a deeply rooted connection with its audience with vibrant animation and music.
My grandma never cared for Dia de los Muertos, and as a half-Mexican kid who was eager to grasp onto any part of my ethnic culture, I was disappointed that we didn’t partake in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. That didn’t mean though that death wasn’t a regular topic at home. It may sound morbid to most, but my grandma spoke of the dead, their spirits and her future passing as if we were talking about what happened on last night’s telenovela. It used to disturb me quite a bit as a kid; I would burst into tears at thought of her dying, or I would hide my entire body under my covers to avoid any chances of ghosts pulling at my toes. Thinking of that now, I find it a little funny how she dismissed Day of the Dead as silly, when it was clear that she held a deep respect for the dead and acknowledged, through those late-night spooky tales, the power of spirits.
It’s not something I’ve thought of much since she passed away two years ago. I think of her very little because to think too much is to feel too much, and honestly, at times, it’s too overwhelming. But the past is important. Our past is important, in it lies a truth, one that is of the essence of me. That is the kind of story that Coco explores, and one that makes this film a new animated classic.
Miguel’s love of music comes from the essence of his soul. Too bad his family, the Rivera’s, forbids it, claiming that music has cursed them and therefore refuses to acknowledge its existence. The Rivera’s are happy to be shoemakers and continue their family business started by Miguel’s great-great grandmother, who was abandoned by her musician husband and henceforth placed on ban on music in their family. But Miguel’s fingers itch for the strings of a guitar, and he hides away in the attic to watch old videos of his musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. It’s not long before his family discovers his hidden musical interests, and it causes Miguel to run away and inadvertently end up in the Land of the Dead.
The entire concept of the Land of the Dead is something of an animator’s dream. The bright colors, intricate details, and the surreal grandness of it all is something to behold, and the Pixar team lives up to the challenge, showcasing some of the best and innovative animation audiences have seen yet. Even the world of the living is painted with warmness, which emanates from the details of Miguel’s home, and the creative use of the Mexican paper banners to tell the story of the Rivera family’s past is simply beautiful.
Coco follows a familiar formula, and one that is particular to Pixar. Seeing enough Pixar movies makes these plot contrivances easy to spot from a mile away. What Coco succeeds in is transcending its plot with a message that is so grounded in humanity and astounding in its emotional deftness. When Miguel learns to the truth of his past, it’s not about him. Miguel always knew who he was: a musician. He exclaimed it from his opening scenes, what he didn’t know was how to be himself with his family – a theme that more than most can find relatable. He learns that it is as much about his family and their past as it is about him, and how one chooses to honor all that can make or break one’s future.
Coco is a tale of forgiveness but also one of remembrance, a true testament to the power of memories and how the dead can live forever as long as we remember. “Remember Me” is the main track from the film’s soundtrack, and it’s obvious in its lyrics, but wistful in its sound. It emotes the tiny grand feelings entangled with longing, grief and hope. While I don’t think the song itself will be considered one of the best Disney songs, its place in this movie is vital, one that impacts the characters so deeply that it earns the audience’s tears. The music in Coco is unsurprisingly very special to the movie, and the score is full of sweeping strings and horns, the music of my childhood, the sounds I heard drifting from room to room when my grandma was home.
I’d be remiss to not point out the importance of representation that a film like Coco brings forth to our entertainment and pop culture collective. At the time of publication, it’s leading up to top Mexico’s box office records – a clear indication that the people this movie represents were longing to see their stories come to life in such a mainstream fashion. Even those of us across America and the world feel our hearts grow seeing an animated abuelita bossing everyone around.
Coco feels like Pixar’s darkest movie, one that revolves around death and includes elements of murder and betrayal. It carries along some heavy themes, complicated and real ideas that force the film’s viewers to reflect on their own lives and outlook. But to call Coco dark would be too easy and also a disservice because it’s one of the famed animated studio’s most hopeful movies. It’s a movie that shows us how to be open, forgiving and loving. To not just dive into who we are, but understand the people around us, whether they are family, friends or both. It’s also to remember those we cherished as often as we can, and to work toward keeping their goodness alive on this earth in a time when we need it the most.
Coco is now playing in theaters.