by Benjamín Harguindey
Review of Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrián Molina), 2017. USA.
Staring at the poster for Pixar’s latest movie, I couldn’t help but dread Coco. Here was something that looked like one of those 1940s package films from Disney, in which the company embraced FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy and coined several stereotypical (if well-meaning) Latin American caricatures such as José Carioca, Panchito Pistoles and even Gaucho Goofy. Coco’s marketing campaign doesn’t just feature prominently sombreros and mariachis: the whole movie revolves around Día de los Muertos, the trusty Mexican celebration that cameos in just about every Hollywood production set in that country.
So you understand my scepticism as I took my seat and braced for what I was sure would be yet another exploitative take on Mexico’s colorful exotism. Interestingly, the movie opens by narrating the backstory of who you think is going to be the protagonist of the story, but little Coco is actually the great grandmother of hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Then my mistrust doubled as soon as Miguel told the audience that he wanted to be a musician but, shucks, music was strictly forbidden by his family. But he practices guitar at his hideout, and has a derpy dog for giggles, and there’s this competition coming soon, and sudenly it felt like I had seen the whole movie in the opening five minutes.
How I fought against this movie – against playing along and having fun with it. I snarked at what felt like an exploitative, reductive depiction of an entire culture and rolled my eyes at the hackneyed musical storyline. And for a while I had a hard time stomaching the movie’s speedy marathon of slapstick and comedy gags – it felt like everybody was constantly out of breath, rushing from one place to another, leaving little time for thought or even to appreciate the expansive colorful vistas.
Miguel finds himself transported to the land of the dead during the fateful Día de los Muertos celebration, where everybody looks like an exact skeletal counterpart of their bygone fleshy personas (not that it makes much sense but we welcome the conceit for the sake of diversity in characterization) and time appears to have frozen the necropolis in that gorgeous 1940s deco you may remember from LucasArts’ Grim Fandango. Or does the deco-noir connection to Mexican skeletons precede that game? In any case, Miguel is unable to go back lest he obtain the blessing from a dead relative, and while he finds a whole bunch, he sets his sights on the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the only one who will surely bless him without the caveat of never playing an instrument in his life. Teaming up with lovable loser Héctor (Gael García Bernal), Miguel sets out on his quest to find de la Cruz and overturn his family’s ban on music.
And that’s about as far as you can go into the movie’s plot without spoiling it with a series of twists that may seem obvious in hindsight but have a knack for springing on you as they unravel. Halfway through the movie started to win me over and by the end I was completely disarmed and liking it about as much as the best Pixar movies ever made. Maybe this was the whiplash from my initial spite, or the fact that so many jokes land perfectly. But morbid as it may sound, my interest mostly spiked up once the movie revealed a surprising streak of dark suggestions that gave more depth than I ever expected from Pixar’s deceptively wacky Coco.
Despite the treacherous sentimentality of the ending (not that it isn’t earned, but it pushes the tears a couple of times too many), I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. Of course I was expecting something beautiful to look at, top notch voice acting, creative visuals and humor that would operate more or less on every age quadrant. But above all what ended up winning me over was the verosimilitude of its story. I ended up buying it. Halfway through it became evident that I was watching a movie integrally voiced by Mexican actors, flaunting some fun references and homages to pop characters, that its cultural vision was deeply ingrained within itself rather than a foreigner’s, and that the story’s message was considerably more valuable than the usual championing of free spirit.
The more I think about the movie the more I value its philosophy, and what a lovely lesson it will impart on its audience, the impressionably young and the cynically old. Interwoven in this deceptively simple, goofy fetch quest is a cry for remembrance, forgiveness and respect for our living elders and the memory of our ancestors. Again, all of this seems obvious in hindsight, but it works so well because it goes hand in hand with a morality tale about taking obvious things for granted.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).