MOVIE REVIEW: Coco (2017)

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Written by Paolo and Marie Barazon

Memory—both the act of remembering someone, and the moments associated with that person—is integral to the plot of many Pixar films, a crucial element that drives the story and anchors the emotional connection between the audience and the film. Among others:

  • Some of the toys in Toy Story 2 and 3 (including its main character Woody) deal with reminiscences of certain toys and their former owners, as well their fears of being forgotten.
  • The unremarkable but resourceful Syndrome (in The Incredibles) harbors a deep-seated resentment that drove his hatred for Mr. Incredible.
  • In Cars, the residents basks in nostalgia for the old glory days of Radiator Springs, when the town was a favorite pit stop for travelers along the famed Route 66.
  • UP opens with a widely-acclaimed montage of the memories Carl Fredricksen has with his late wife Ellie; the rest of the film shows how Carl worked to fulfill the one wish that Ellie never got to achieve. Its antagonist, Charles Muntz, also dreams of making a big comeback from the scandal that destroyed his career as an explorer.
  • The stunning climax of Ratatouille hinges on an old remembrance by the critic Anton Ego, which upends everything that people know about his notoriously picky character. The memory of a celebrated chef (and the object of Ego’s revulsion) is commemorated in video clips, cookbooks and even as a hovering spirit.
  • Bing Bong (Inside Out) pines for the days when Riley remembers him, her imaginary friend, and plays with him, even as she is no longer the little kid he knew.
  • Arlo in The Good Dinosaur feels responsible for the loss of his father, whom he misses, and struggles to go out in the world under his shadow.
  • And in Finding Dory, Dory struggles with memory loss, which she needs to overcome in order to be reunited with her parents.

It’s not surprising, then, that Coco also explores the topic of memory. Set during the vibrant Mexican feast of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the film follows the adventures of young Miguel Rivera, a teenage boy in a family of shoemakers. The occasion is very familiar to Filipino audiences: undas in the Philippines resembles the vibrant (if macabre) celebration of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (both November 1) and right from the start the film already establishes it’s main theme, remembering those who have departed.

He dreams of following the footsteps of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico’s greatest singer, but because his family has forbidden music in their household and disallows him to join the talent show in their town’s plaza mayor, Miguel is forced to steal his idol’s guitar from his mausoleum. This unleashes a curse which transports him to the land of the dead; there, he meets his deceased ancestors (as well as an out-and-about Hector, who risks eternal death once his only daughter completely forgets about him), and he discovers the painful memories that his living relatives did not want him to learn.

In Coco, the afterlife is depicted as colorful as the living world, just as how the departed’s loved ones would decorate their altars in their memory. The land of the dead is portrayed as a place full of energy, teeming with lush, vibrant colors just as it were in the land of the living. We couldn’t help but observe how the younger members of the audience (our little son included) got astounded looking at the scenes—never mind that they were looking at a fictitious rendition of the afterlife, a topic that is probably yet behind their comprehension. The land of the dead is never shown as a dark, dreary place, but an elysium whose life is dependent on how the living remember the ones who left this life. (This concept is a conceit that drives an important plot point.)

Complementing the stunning visuals are the energetic mariachi and folk music, which gives the film a strong Mexican character. The films makes effective use of native music that makes an otherwise drab story alive and breathing (although some of the songs with Spanish lyrics don’t have subtitles). Especially notable is the performances of Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), who displayed a skillful and spiritual rendition of musical numbers that is probably beyond his age. Under Gonzalez’ voice, Miguel finds his meaning only when he expresses himself through music: his thoughts, feelings and memories. Just as touching is his performance of the movie’s main theme song, Remember Me, a simple lullabye about separation that could land Coco an Oscar nomination and is worthy of inclusion in Disney’s canon of movie theme songs.

As with any Pixar film, Coco does not shy away from jabs at contemporary social and political issues in a way that resonates with the audience. Border tensions between the US (the film’s country of origin) and Mexico (the film’s settings) are parodied right in the first act, notably when Hector gets denied passage to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertes as an “undocumented” dead person. It also raises the question of how we relate to the cult of celebrity, and with how the memories of long-departed personalities are being remembered and commemorated, a point that is highlighted as the back story of Ernesto de la Cruz is exposed in the story.

While watching Coco is an enjoyable experience, it risks being compared with its predecessors, especially on the topic of memory. To a fault, it borrows liberally from UP and Ratatouille, including in its treatment of the celebrity cult and in how its characters deal with loss. It even quotes a line in UP almost verbatim (“I’m going to Paradise Falls if it kills me!” / “I’m going to Plaza Mayor if it kills me!”). There isn’t really a lot of original ideas in Coco that hasn’t been tackled in other Pixar films, but only differs in how it renders these ideas, and on that note we will not say more.

These similarities, however, do not detract from the film’s central theme. We have witnessed how relatives and friends have lost loved ones in recent months, and so watching the film feels like a catharsis rather than a reliving of the pain of losing someone we love. If any, Coco reminds us that the ones who left this life are never far away for as long as we hold them in our hearts.

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