Coco

Lee Unkrich/Albert Molina (co-directors), Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg (cinematographers), Steve Bloom and Lee Unkrich (editors)
Anthony González, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach (cast)
November 21, 2017 (US)
CW: Brief discussion of the man-in-a-dress trope.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the 22 minute short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” precedes the main feature, although my understanding is that the short is only running for a limited time and will not be featured with Coco for much longer. If you loved Frozen and look forward to the sequel, you’ll love this. If you ruefully know “Let It Go” from innumerable repetitions and weren’t looking for a reminder, maybe volunteer for the concessions line. It’s typical Pixar pretty, and more showing off of their ice fractal engine. I remember little more about it than that, but I’m not the target age demographic.

On to the main event, then. There were some rumors that Mexopolis, the production company behind Book of Life (an earlier Día de los Muertos film) was feeling bad blood about Disney one upping them, but those rumors are untrue. Disney has spent a decade working on Coco. The films have different stories with a different focuses. While Book of Life was more authentic due to its creators being Mexican themselves, Disney/Pixar clearly learned from their Moana experience. The company did its homework and paid respectful attention to the criticism and call outs by Mexicans.  They hired consultants for the film and their effort to tell a respectful story about Día de los Muertos shows. Pixar’s care and attention to detail is in every frame. The film was well received in Mexico, making it the biggest blockbuster hit of all time in that country. That’s quite a feat; take it as an endorsement.  If the people whose country and culture are portrayed give it a warm reception, that’s a positive sign.

Coco is about a boy named Miguel Rivera, who is the youngest in his family of shoemakers, going back generations. Unfortunately Miguel’s heart leads him down a different path: towards music, which the family has uniformly forsaken because it broke their matriarch’s heart generations ago. Miguel, torn between his dream and the family mandate, ends up in the land of the dead, where he learns more about his family than he ever thought possible.

I’ve seen the film twice already, once in 2D and once in 3D.  The 3D is worth it. It feels organic and eventually you’ll forget you’re wearing the glasses at all. Plus, so many detail warrant a repeat viewing, at least more than one.

Limited spoilers beyond this point. Please proceed at your own risk.

The Fangirl Says:

It’s difficult to watch the family united against Miguel’s dream. The “Adults Know Best” trope gets a hard-edged workout as Mamá Elena acts as enforcer to the late Mamá Imelda’s refusal to allow music into the house. Mamá Elena is violently angry in one moment, then effusively affectionate the next, and gives no sign of understanding how much she hurts Miguel until he explodes with emotion. Pixar animates the entire family, including the wrinkled and ancient current matriarch Mamá Coco, with such emotion that I felt Miguel’s frustration, horror, rage, and despair like it was my own. That’s good storytelling.

The storytelling continues like that, making it difficult to pull your eyes away from the breathtaking Pixar visuals. The comedy is interwoven with Miguel’s despair as they refuse to accept his dream. The dead family’s concern for Miguel is mirrored by the living family frantically looking for Miguel.

The Intersectional Critique

The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Given how many women are in Miguel’s family, from Coco and Elena on the living side, to Mamá Imelda and his many aunts on the dead side, I’m 95% certain two named women spoke to each other and not about a man. (Full disclosure: I became absorbed with the story.)

Toxic Masculinity: Present, but portrayed as a bad thing, as ego out of control. Pleasantly, there is more display of healthy masculinity. Boys and men embrace each other out of affection. Miguel cries more than once, and calls out with happiness. He also passes out from terror, once.

Representation: Mamá Coco, aged, user of a wheelchair and suffering from memory loss, is significant enough to the plot that she’s the title character.  Although she is asleep much of the time and barely speaks, Miguel adores her, plays with her, and tells her everything. It was very heartening to see an elderly and disabled character treated with love and respect.

Héctor walks with a limp. Not only that, but some of his bones are held together with tape and wire, indicating his afterlife has not been the endless fiesta most of the Land of the Dead seems to be. A lot of his personality is revealed to be a coping method for persevering through physical and emotional difficulties. This may resonate with people who live with depression.

Miguel’s twin uncles and one of his aunts wear glasses.  They are a reminder that disabilities can be small ones which are easily compensated.

There is an entire sub-level of the Land of the Dead, where the dead are confined when fewer and fewer of the living remember them; they fade out of existence altogether when the last living person who remembers them forgets them or dies. It is a powerful visual metaphor for poverty. None of the dwellings are in good repair, and the paint is faded to remnants as compared to the bright and lively city above. Héctor wears hole-riddled rags and goes barefoot.

There are also some guy-in-a-dress gags. I am cis, and I know impact is always more important than intent, so I will provide a little context within the film. Please practice self care; only you know what you need to feel and be safe. Héctor dresses up as Frida Kahlo three times, and before the climax, Miguel’s entire family does too, men included.  The first time Héctor does so is out of desperation, to take advantage of a passing resemblance to Kahlo. No one mocks him or makes fun of him for this in-story. The second time he does it is because he managed to acquire the costume again and was in more dire straits, as Miguel had gone on to the Land of the Living without him.  He is only once mistaken for Kahlo. The third and final time, the entire family of Miguel’s ancestors dress as Kahlo, who has choreographed a number with dancers all dressed as her, in order to get a significant MacGuffin. The dancers help to smuggle the family in, and so assist them with their disguises.

I did not spot any queer representation.

Parental concerns: There are four on-screen deaths, though two of them are played for laughs. The third is a touching moment that lends urgency to the story. The fourth is a harsh moment, and the darkest point in the film.

Miguel’s strife with his family also gets intense sometimes. Seeing the boy’s pain that his family is so entrenched in their hatred of music that they won’t support him is emotionally wrenching to watch. Especially Mamá Elena going from violent rage to smooching sweetness. It is very close to, if not actual, emotional abuse. I don’t go to Disney movies to see abuse, and especially not by the protagonists.

The scene immediately after Miguel gets transported to the Land of the Dead is kind of scary. The music and the mingled panic of Miguel and his family make it all the more heart-wrenching.

The Verdict

Coco is very entertaining. Pixar works their usual visual magic around an engaging plot and brilliant music. It’s not perfect: it could have struck a better chord in places. As usual, my review will take intersectionality into account.

4/5 stars. It loses 1 star for the portrayal of Mamá Elena. It loses ½ star for the Frida Kahlo sequences which warrant a self care content warning. It gains back ½ a star for all the women and their roles in the story as well as for portraying toxic masculinity as an undesirable thing.