November 20, 2017

CINEMA | Pixar and 'Coco' Celebrate the Dead

"Seize your moment."
Anthony Gonzalez Gael García Bernal Adrian Molina Lee Unkrich | Disney Pixar Coco

Disney Studios and Pixar Animation use elements of Mexican culture and the Día de Muertos ("Day of the Dead") festivities to tell a tale of family in Coco. The animated feature's colourful expression of skeleton imagery, Mexican folk music, and aspects of Latin familial ties highlight its imaginative story fully realizing a visual Land of the Dead.

Directed by Lee Unkrich, but seemingly spearheaded by Mexican-American animator Adrian Molina, who has a co-director credit in addition to co-writing the screenplay and many of the songs, the film feels as though it has a strong, authentic Latin influence and sheen as much as Disney versions of cultural tales can. It is, however, somewhat predictably formulaic, but it's hard to unshake the welcome non-white cultural touchstones and influences.

Sweetly told, the strong afterlife visuals complement the sentimental values of the film's family-driven narrative with the full weight of its simple ideas. There are its fair share of coincidences, dumb contrivances, and convenient situations, but Coco remains a welcome and decidedly un-whitewashed story of the benefits and drawbacks of living within strong culture.

The quick setup of Coco is emblematic of both the ills and heights of Pixar storytelling where decades of traditional Mexican family history are told in belaboured yet dazzling fashion. This is all done in order to get to the meat of things where Miguel soon becomes convinced he's the rightful heir to a musical legacy, sets off, and somehow accidentally enters the world of the dead despite being very much alive.

Anthony Gonzalez Adrian Molina Lee Unkrich | Disney Pixar Coco

The twelve-year-old Miguel (voiced ably by Anthony Gonzalez) is a great vessel for our entry into a very traditional Mexican family of shoemakers with their own baggage including a strict (but very silly) ban on any form of music or musical expression. It's a tightly enforced, but incredibly stupid, plot point that is taken to extremes when Miguel refuses to return to the land of the living if he cannot become a musician.

The rest of the voice cast of Latino actors in unsurprisingly talented including Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt as singers in the Land of the Dead. However, some of the stock characters get the shaft where relatives and matriarchs aren't much more than stereotypically warm and harsh caricatures used to spearhead other characters' motivations.

What makes Coco successful and authentic feeling is its focus on the nature of legacy and artistic desire. We all know how difficult it can be navigating our own individual pursuits within a strong family unit or structure that can be both loving and oppressive. Disney and Pixar understand how to tell this fantastical story within the framework of life and family. How it uses the dead to celebrate the living so vividly is truly magical.

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