Coco and its Willfully Wondrous Foray into Death

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A review of Pixar’s “Coco.”

By CLAIRE PARK

 

Coco is about Miguel, a twelve year old boy whose unflagging ambition to become a musician leads him to steal the guitar from his idol Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum, a transgression that transports him to the Land of the Dead. He reunites with long-lost family members, who refuse him their blessing to become a musician, aligning with a long-standing familial animus toward music after Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoned the family to perform for the world. In order to return to the living world, Miguel needs the blessing of a family member, and, thinking Ernesto to be his great-great grandfather, seeks his blessing. He enlists the help of a lonely Héctor, who needs Miguel to display his photo on his family’s ofrenda in the living world, in order to revisit his loved ones and to keep his spirit from fading away completely. Pixar nails Miguel’s youthfully willful independence and blinkered stubbornness before he learns new truths about his family’s history and encounters the pain of loss and wounded love. The film aptly doesn’t force Miguel into a compromise between family and ambition, and even makes a case for superficial aspects of artistry, in showing how a crowd, for the dormant musicians in Miguel’s family, can be an ally in personal liberation.

 

The figure around whom the plot quietly revolves is Mama Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother. She has no choice but to receive Miguel with an endearing but invariably unresponsive wizened smile. She remembers him by the wrong name, and her elderly absentmindedness is portrayed with remarkable empathy and emotional precision; it’s a source of humor as well as a veil behind which intense and unadulterated emotion can be conjured, after so many years. I found myself marveling at the technological wonders of animation, how the animators choreographed the wrinkles in her face as it blossoms into a knowing smile. The film’s goofy humor never detracts from the drama and adventure, and only enriches the human community in the Land of the Dead; Miguel is roped into a glamorous skeletal bash, and is privy to Frida Kahlo’s ecstatically self-absorbed art piece, which involves a Cactus Mother and dancing fruit designed in her image.

 

Héctor’s spirit falters in the Land of the Dead not only because he’s being forgotten, but also because he’s not being remembered. Memories need to be substantial, lovingly packaged and embellished through stories passed down by loved ones. The plot revels in the joys of storytelling through the characters’ reprisals of and resistance to history and tradition: Miguel obsessively re-watches de la Cruz’s old performances, he struggles to assume the mantle of his family’s shoe-making business, and his hometown of Santa Cecilia honors Ernesto de la Cruz with the fanatic devotion only a small town can have. The film does a wonderful job of making death into a journey, not a destination; there is a way to reach the living, by way of a breathtakingly iridescent marigold path. The brilliantly imagined visual embellishments are also a treat. The alebrijes, spirit creatures who guide souls on their journey into the Land of the Dead are your glamorized but familiar Pixar sidekicks, and also gesture toward the uplifting notion of re-invention that undergirds the plot, especially in the case of Héctor; alebrijes can take any form, as a majestically gigantic polka-dot neon dragon, or as a mangy street dog with a goofy smile. If children are to learn anything about death, it’s that life is a rich and motive fabric of stories, and that presence is a thing that we can hold in our hands and honor even after death in objects of remembrance. The dead are very much alive in the Land of the Dead, and remembering is a lifelong activity, a practice, a tradition.

 

Claire Park ([email protected]) laughed and sobbed dutifully as she watched yet another wonderful Pixar movie.