Traditions and beliefs can create strong family bonds, uniting relatives in shared outlooks and activities. But, what if some of those beliefs don’t seem to fit a family member? What should they do?
In “Coco,” this question arises for Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a boy from the village of Santa Cecilia, Mexico. Miguel’s family forbids any type of music in their household. This tradition stretches back five generations. It began when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left to pursue a career in music and never returned. This left Imelda (Alanna Ubach), Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, to support their young daughter, Coco. Angry over her husband’s departure, Imelda banned music while starting a very successful shoe business.
That business and the music ban continue into the present day. When he’s not in school, Miguel entertains his wheelchair-bound great-grandmother, Coco, and shines shoes. But, his real love is music. Miguel’s hero is the town’s claim to fame, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), an early singing movie star. Miguel has secretly made his own guitar and emulates de la Cruz’s style, believing in the star’s motto, “Seize your moment.”
As part of Santa Cecilia’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations, a music contest will be held. Miguel wants to enter but this angers his family, especially his loving but strong-willed grandmother, Abuelita (Renee Victor). When she breaks Miguel’s guitar, he desperately seeks a replacement. When none is available, Miguel decides to borrow the guitar housed in de la Cruz’s crypt. But, the marigold petals scattered in the crypt have a magical power when transports Miguel and a street dog named Dante to the Land of the Dead.
Once there, Miguel meets generations of his ancestors who he recognizes from their photos on his family’s Dia de los Muertos ofrenda. Even in the Land of the Dead, Miguel’s family opposes his interest in music. But, Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a spirit who needs Miguel’s help to visit the Dia de los Muertos celebrations in the Land of the Living. Miguel hopes Hector can help him meet de la Cruz and obtain a blessing before Miguel turns into a spirit himself.
With “Coco,” the creative team at Pixar, led by director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina, has brought to life a story which emphasizes many of the strengths of Mexican culture- family, handmade art, music, food, and traditions. Miguel’s family, both living and dead, are proud of their heritage and their successful shoe business. In an animated “cameo,” artist Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) appears as one of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead. The tribute to Kahlo highlights her dramatic, dream-like artworks. And, through his attraction to music, Miguel has the opportunity to return the joy of song to his entire family.
Color has always played a significant role in Pixar’s films. For the “Toy Story” series, the palette was bright, primary colors- red, blue, yellow, and green. For “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dori,” the blue-greens of the ocean dominated. In “Coco,” the colors are warm browns, pinks and oranges supplemented by turquoise. The colors are even more vibrant in the Land of the Dead than they are in the village of Santa Cecilia.
Marigold orange especially plays a big visual role since marigolds are part of Dia de los Muertos decorations. “Coco” brings some of the traditions and beliefs surrounding this holiday to the screen. Abuelita explains the importance of the ofrendas with photos of departed loved ones and their favorite foods. The decorating of gravesites with marigolds and food offerings is shown. The Land of the Dead spirit guide animals, ranging from Pepita a flying wildcat to Kahlo’s monkey are multi-hued and fascinatingly beautiful. Their design is based on traditional alebrijes artworks.
The soundtrack for “Coco” highlights the tempos and tones of Mexican music. From the ballad “Remember Me” (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez who composed the songs for “Frozen) to the fun son jarocho style “Un Poco Loco” (by Germaine Franco and co-director Molina), the songs both entertain and support the storyline. Longtime Pixar composer Michael Giacchino successfully creates a score that honors Latin rhythms, beginning with a mariachi version of “When You Wish Upon the Star” to accompany the Disney logo.
Additionally, the power of music to invoke memories plays a moving role in the film. Without giving away any of the plot, it can safely be said that Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s script brings to the screen the fact that music can stir memories considered lost due to time or illness.
The voice actors in “Coco” provide a range of emotion for their characters. Young Gonzalez as Miguel perfectly conveys his character’s curiosity, idol worship, and persistence in both word and song. As Abuelita, Victor helps make her feisty and protective character also humorous and lovable. Great-great-grandmother Imelda’s blend of stubbornness and pride is captured by Ubach. And as playful Hector. Bernal amuses yet is also determined in his desire to see family.
Blending richly layered visuals with a heartwarming narrative, “Coco” reminds audiences of the value of family. And, it is an entertaining and respectful reminder of the rich culture of Mexico.