Night of the Dead Living - Coco
The fact that something is rare does not make it good. But when something is rare and high quality, the result can be a truly special experience. Coco is that; the rare movie breaking new ground with heart, humor, wit and a mastery of storytelling. Leave it to Pixar to tackle death in a family-friendly way and infuse it with Mexican heritage and thought-provoking generational issues. They created a universe reminiscent of the pre-pubescent mind in Inside Out and it somehow made death feel like a lighthearted subject. You accept the rules of this universe very quickly and become familiar with certain Spanish lingo, from the ofrenda to the alebrije. Along the way, you meet delightful characters and gain insights into rich traditions and pastimes that have a lot to say about life.
The film opens with paper cutouts that review the family history of the Riveras. They are a Mexican family in the shoemaking business. Many generations back, the father figure left his family to become a musician. After that, no one in the Rivera family was allowed to be a musician and all music was strictly forbidden in their home. Fast-forward four generations and a young Miguel Rivera is coming to grips with this reality as someone who loves music and idolizes a singer named Ernesto de la Cruz, but is forbidden from following in his footsteps.
On Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Rivera family puts all of their dead relatives photographs on the ofrenda to welcome them to cross over to the Land of the Living. The film follows Miguels as he accidentally winds up crossing over to the Land of the Dead. While there, he runs into his dead relatives who are determined to make sure he does not play music when he crosses back over. The film follows Miguel as he tries to find his way back without losing his love for music.
I could go on and on about how amazing it is that Pixar pulled this off. These aren't light familial issues. Absentee fathers, career expectations, racial identity. It is par for the course for Pixar to include themes that reach adults, but these are all tackled in a way that feels accessible to kids as well. In a way only Pixar can, they somehow seem to speak on multiple levels with each scene. They also manage to create something that by all accounts is a culturally sensitive representation of these traditions and narratives. So often, people of color are marginalized in stories this big, and if they are included, it can sometimes be a cringeworthy experience. Not so for Coco, as the characters come through as rich and textured people who care about what all of us do.
As with any totally imaginary universe, there is always a chance that a certain concept won't quite land on its feet. In Coco, that is the alebrije, which are the animals that guide people in the afterlife. While it deepens the cultural representation, it winds up coming across as Pixar's way of including cute animals for various touching moments. It's not aggressively bad, but it's certainly not a highlight in an otherwise spot-free experience. So much about how the action unfolds and how the characters interact feels truly fresh and original. Beyond the Mexican lens used to frame the story, there are truly universal messages about the tension between being who you are and reconciling that with notions of heritage and tradition. That little brown boys and girls get to see animated characters on the screen who look like them is just the icing on a fully-baked cake. The result is a treat.
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