2017 Film Essays

Despite Needing Tune-Ups, Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Is a Color-Saturated Celebration of Family

The titular character of Pixar’s Mexico-set Coco utters nary a word. Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) bears the most photorealistic design against the traditional, cartoonier Pixar family as a smiling sag of crinkles that draws the viewer’s eyes to her. But although she remains a blank-staring laconic senior for the majority of the film, her partially-formed lamentations for her “papi” foreshadow Pixar-patented pathos.

As told through the cut-outs of fluttering, pastel papel picado, so traumatizing was the departure of Coco’s musician father that her late mother (Alanna Ubach) instilled a ban on music, much to the chagrin of young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Touching a guitar or interacting with a mariachi would earn him a death glare from his abuelita (Renée Victor), who dogmatically adhered to the music ban, with a fervent desire, to spare her mother Coco from further heartbreak, and to prevent Miguel from choosing fame over family.

But Miguel uncovers a pivotal secret related to the cryptic, faceless photo on the family shrine. After a rift with his family, Miguel finds himself transported to the afterlife realm, populated by the skeletal spirits of his world. On his way, he forms an alliance with a skeletal nobody Hector (Gael García Bernal), who pines to cross the marigold bridge to the world of the living.

It’s difficult to traverse more into the plot without dropping its twists or the clues toward the twists, which — although discernible — are ingeniously calculated for emotional outcomes. Even though I solved the mysteries and twists a mile away, I anticipated every story revelation the same way I would willingly sing the lyrics of a favorite tune over and over again. Coco does strum familiar beats that long-time Pixar viewers will notice. Despite this backstory told through rich artistry, the no-music brand plot is admittedly a hard-sell conflict even for the standards of a children’s book or a myth. Due to its overzealous mad dash from plot point A to B, the film would benefit from expositional breathing space and the spiritual/logistical rules of the realm.

A dance of layered visuals and eye-popping patterns, Coco is well balanced with the understated, such as one melancholy music sequence where Miguel discovers that even in the afterlife there is a “Final Death” if a soul goes unremembered for too long, amplifying the stakes.

Although the movie is not a musical in the fantastical sense with all diegetic numbers, the energy and lyricism of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (alumni of Frozen and Book of Mormon, respectively) makes me salivate for more songs. “Remember Me” sets up the particular stealth payoff, starting as a sprightly conventional hit number before its songwriting origins are revealed. It’s sure to compete with Toy Story 2’s tearjerking “When She Loved Me” sequence.

Through the music, the celebration of family and remembrance is loud and clear. Saturated with color and Mexican iconography, Coco is a playground of skeletal slapstick, from jaws dropping, talking skulls displaced from their bodies and a hilarious quip involving a lent femur. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo makes scene-stealing appearances, with an affectionate throwback to her maddening artistry, complete with a papaya seed installation and milk-crying cactus. The papaya moment is just a brick building toward a priceless concert climax. But the golden payoff strikes when Miguel is returned to the world of the living, where Coco’s wavering memories becomes the final key to restore order.

On a supplementary note, it is inevitable to discuss the comparisons to another animated Dia de Los Muertos classic: Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Book of Life, which bears a more unorthodox art style. Despite their shared tropes of family camaraderie and musical pursuits, both have psychologically distinctive plots. (For what it’s worth, Gutierrez debunked the “rip-off” accusations against Pixar and vocally supported Coco’s production.) I recommend a double-feature viewing of Coco and Book of Life, as both movies can co-exist in the same manner that Christmas movies can exist together.

Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies DeathThe Mary SueFilm School Rejects and The Script Lab. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.