Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is the studio’s best film in years
To say that Hollywood has struggled with representation of minorities would be a bit of an understatement. It seems that every few months moviegoers are treated to a fresh controversy concerning casting choices and depiction of cultures in film, such as the decision to have Scarlett Johansson (“Rough Night”) play the Japanese heroine of 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell.” Moreover, Hollywood’s most prominent directors and writers are overwhelmingly white men.
When Pixar’s latest release, “Coco,” was announced in 2013 under the title “Dia de los Muertos,” it seemed like the film would be yet another example of tone-deaf Hollywood drivel as Disney moved to trademark the name of the Mexican holiday, stirring outrage from the Southern Californian Latino community. Learning from its mistakes, Pixar changed the name to “Coco” and recruited several experts on Mexican culture and history to consult throughout the creative process concerning the studio’s depiction of the culture.
The result is one of the most thoughtful, nuanced and all around gorgeous depictions of Mexican culture ever to come from mainstream Hollywood. “Coco” follows a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzales, “Imagination of Young”), an aspiring musician facing his family’s generations-old ban on music. When Miguel attempts to steal a guitar from the tomb of his favorite musician, he is transported to the Land of the Dead and must find his way home before sunrise lest he be trapped there forever.
The film’s story could perhaps be one place for complaint. Thematically, it’s color-by-numbers Disney; so long as characters follow their hearts and believe, all their dreams will come true. It’s a formula that the studio has done to perfection, and it follows an emotional arc that will feel very familiar to Pixar fans, from its main character’s hopeful optimism to its tear-jerking emotional climax. Some plot points felt predictable; some would-be big reveals could be seen coming. That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to what works, especially when the film’s true strengths lie in its details.
The film brings together numerous details about Mexican culture, from the glowing, patterned alebrijes (spirit animals) that live in the Land of the Dead to an appearance from the spirit of Frida Kahlo. These details never once feel like a contrived token for diversity, but instead combine to make “Coco” one of the most immersive animated experiences of the year. While “Coco” does have a story to tell — and a heartwarming one at that — it feels like part of the film’s goal was simply to write a love letter to Mexican culture and heritage, a goal it achieves in spades. The film is a vibrant, beautiful portrait of a people and their culture.
Moreover, “Coco” may very well be one of the most technically impressive and visually stunning animated films ever made. This is visible from little details, like the way leaves on the ground pulse and glow when Miguel strums a guitar, to big, ambitious settings like The Land of the Dead, depicted in the film as a sprawling, glowing metropolis that’s built atop itself and is impossibly tall. The character design is delightfully unique, and each character has a liveliness and rhythm to their movements that helps to build their character, from the skeleton-esque limp of Héctor (Gael García Bernal, “If You Saw His Heart”) to the comedic flailing of Dante, a stray Mexican Hairless Dog and Miguel’s sidekick.
The film’s story may not be terribly unique, but everything else about the film is, and is done with such virtuosic attention to detail that it completely silences whatever issues one may take with the plot. “Coco” does more than paint a vivid picture, it invites audiences to step through the looking glass into a stunningly beautiful world teeming with creativity. What’s more, the film’s lovingly nuanced depiction of Mexican culture should be the benchmark for respectful depiction and minority representation in Hollywood going forward. Shattering box-office records in Mexico within days of opening, “Coco” is not only a great movie, it’s also a great example of what happens when big studios take the time to ask questions, learn about a culture and do it right.
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