I’ve come to expect a lot from Pixar, and more often than not, they haven’t let me down. But when it came to Coco, Pixar’s film focused on a Mexican family around the day of dead, I went into the theater last Friday, the day after its release, with extremely tempered expectations.
My parents are both immigrants from Mexico, and while we don’t celebrate La Dia de los Muertos, our culture and language is extremely important to us. Ratatouille shed a spotlight on the French, we encounter some Australians in Finding Nemo, Brave is set in Scotland, and there’s a couple Italian and British characters in Cars, but Coco is the first deep and dedicated foray into a non-white culture by the SF Bay Area based animation studio.
To put it lightly, I was terrified that my childhood self was going to wither into oblivion, much like the forgotten souls of the Land of the Dead in the film, because of a distasteful illustration of the culture I hold so dear.
Much to my relief upon walking out of the dark theater in profuse tears, Coco far surpassed my expectations and then some. (I’ll admit it was shaky during that unbearable Frozen short that preceded this beautiful film, but we persisted. I don’t even want to talk about it.)
Coco clearly illustrated the same dedication to accuracy through experiential research present in many of Pixar’s past features. From the use of vibrantly colored papel picado as the backdrop for a brief family history of Miguel’s deeply (and accurately) matriarchal family to the humorous cultural nods to la chancla and the unspoken rule to always accept second (and third) helpings to the film’s overarching focus on the value of family, this film was truly a love letter to the people of Mexico and the many, many Mexican families here in the states.
The film’s heart is the value of the love of family and the memory of our ancestors, and it was perfectly set on its opening day against the spirit of Thanksgiving. To avoid a few major cultural affronts, it’s clear that the studio positioned this release deliberately and strategically.
First, the studio released the film in Mexico for a full month prior to its release worldwide, cementing the country’s ownership of the film’s themes and overall sentiment. This move proved to be extremely successful as it has already become the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico.
The initial release in Mexico centered around Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday featured in the movie. This fact is by far the most impactful part of the move to release during that time only in Mexico. The decision effectively barred the rest of the world and offered the Mexican people a private moment with this film and holiday which is so often misconstrued as a parallel to Halloween.
Positioning the holiday as portrayed in the film against Thanksgiving was perhaps the best way for the studio to convey its true meaning in the Mexican consciousness to American audiences. Much like Thanksgiving, Dia de los Muertos is a day that emphasizes family in celebrating and being thankful for the memory of loved ones on the one night they are able to cross back over to the living world.
Aside from the tenderness and respect with which the studio handled several aspects of Mexican culture, the plot itself was truly compelling.
(A warning now: here come the major spoilers.)
With how well the film was actually handling its portrayal Mexican culture, I genuinely believed that Ernesto was just going to prove to be a major a**hole, and Miguel was going to reconcile with his family and realize that their love trumps everything and then somehow his family would come to accept his love for music because the fear of losing him shook them enough to realize that being supportive is important. Simple. Predictable. Classic trope of a disappointing encounter with your childhood hero followed by the realization that your family has always had your back.
I thought to myself: well, they’ve put all these resources into producing a beautiful and authentic atmosphere, I guess I can’t except them to do that AND still have energy for creating a compelling plot.
I absolutely did not anticipate the dramatic poisoning-to-steal-your-best-friend’s-songs-and-become-famous-while-preventing-him-from-returning-home-leading-to-his-family allowing-him-to-wither-away-in-the-afterlife plot. This story line shook me to my core, and by the time Miguel was able to make it back to his Mama Coco to sing her song and help her share the memory of his real great great grandfather, I was sobbing uncontrollably.
The whole plot twist moment when we realize that Coco is actually Hector’s daughter made me gasp loudly and with appropriate melodrama. It all felt like I was in middle school again watching a telenovela with my parents in the living room. From that point forward, I became so invested in the outcome of the film and was genuinely afraid the studio might allow Coco to pass away before Miguel could make it back to her. Once they went there with the murder plot, I wasn’t sure how far they’d be willing to go.
Ultimately, the family plot just hits incredibly close to home for me and I imagine for many other Mexican people here and across the border. The story of sincere but misguided protection of the family is so resonant, it immediately took me back to my own childhood. Growing up, I remember my own papá prohibiting all manner of seemingly innocuous activities for my own good. Coco forces all of us to come to terms and see that these conflicts and frustrations have always been rooted in a place of deepest love. Now, I can reflect on that time and see how we grew as a family to trust each other’s judgement and realize that we’d always be able to lean on each other for anything, no matter what.
All in all, I’d have to say that Pixar’s Coco was a magnificent win for the studio and for the conflict affecting this culture in the United States right now. Pixar created a a much needed love song as intimate and tender as “Remember Me” for the culture and identity I hold so dear.