Seize your moment
Disney and Pixar have lately begun to tell more stories that aren’t intrinsically linked to their white male sensibilities (even if they have a tendency to push out voices that should be talking for their characters like Brenda Chapman on Brave). It’s definitely an evolutionary process—one that might actually be helped with John Lasseter‘s ouster if stories about his inability to listen to outsiders are true. It was Aladdin‘s white directors Ron Clements and John Musker who moved from Arabian nights to Princess and the Frog‘s Cajun flavor. Pete Docter gave life to Pixar’s first Asian lead in Up‘s Russell. And Clements and Musker were back at it to showcase Pacific Islander culture in Moana. Applaud the effort, but ask for more representation behind the scenes.
I say this because only through asking (and buying enough tickets to stories of minorities to prove there’s a market for them to succeed) can change actually happen. Case in point: Coco. You can say it was merely time for Disney to tackle a Día de Muertos tale with all that holiday’s beautiful colors and artistry, but I’d argue it has a lot to do with the modest success enjoyed by Fox for taking the chance (with the help from Guillermo del Toro) on Jorge R. Gutiérrez‘s The Book of Life. Here was a Mexican-born animator being given studio money to develop, write, and direct a spiritual world unknown to the audiences Hollywood generally targets with wide releases. Here was definitive proof that room for disparate voices existed.
And this brings us to Adrian Molina, an American of Mexican descent that has been in the Pixar system for ten plus years. It was therefore only natural that the studio would lean on him for authenticity in their depiction of a tradition that deserved respect rather than cultural appropriation. He moved from being in the crowded story room to co-writing the screenplay with Matthew Aldrich to co-directing the film itself alongside another long-time employee-turned-director Lee Unkrich. But while the type of inclusion Disney has needed for far too long has arrived, this is only a first step. More will be necessary to continue the Pixar brand as too many uninspired sequels/remakes flood their slate. Voices like Molina, Taika Waititi, and Ava Duvernay are finally being heard.
Don’t tell me Coco‘s success is therefore due to “liberal pursuits towards diversity” as opposed to quality either because it’s the real deal regardless. It takes a page from Up‘s book in the way it uses death as a propulsive force that transcends any dismissive stigma associated with the word “device.” Just like the insurmountable impact of Carl Fredricksen’s wife’s death didn’t throw him onto the film’s central adventure (many years pass in-between), young Miguel’s (Anthony Gonzalez) journey is far-removed from the day his great-great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was abandoned by his nameless great-great grandfather. The emotions of what happened did color the decades since and do push Miguel into the corner he now so desperately seeks to escape. But their impact is complexly layered, not overt.
That man left because he chose his guitar over the wife and daughter who loved him. So Imelda forsook the very idea of music. She became a cobbler and worked to pass down the trade generation to generation with Miguel next in line to learn. And as the years went by, the memory of that man faded. Imelda erased him the best she could, their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) never telling her children who he was. This meant Miguel’s Abuelita (Renee Victor) was raised staunchly opposed to music too. Family was all she cared about, the shoe-making business their strength and legacy. Miguel’s inability to shake his desire to break from that mold is therefore a surprise—a deception. Fate opens that long-closed door to his heritage.
The journey that follows is universally resonant because we all know that feeling of rebellion against a future our heart simply does not embrace. This is why Miguel sneaks off to a hiding place to watch videos and listen to records of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) in secret. He mimics the long-since deceased artist’s style and learns guitar in the process. But no matter how much music is in his soul, the fear of his Abuelita discovering this forbidden love is too much. Her voice follows him whenever he’s about to take the plunge and perform in a talent competition without the family’s permission. Her refusal to let music in their lives has pushed him to choose. Her selfishness ensures his own.
So, when everyone is supposed to be thinking about family on Day of the Dead—when the spirits of those who’ve passed can visit their ancestors if they’ve left out a photo of remembrance to guide them home—Miguel’s one-track mind sees him ready to show the world he’s a musician. To do so he’ll need a guitar. Since his hometown was also that of de la Cruz, one sits on the wall of the famed singer’s tomb. And through a series of accidents (helped by a local stray the boy has named Danté), a photo of his great-great grandfather is revealed to hold that same exact instrument. Could this hero be his erased relative? Are music and that very guitar his birthright so unjustly stripped away?
Well, the magic of the day catalyzes his search by inexplicably transferring him onto the spiritual plane as soon as he strums a chord amongst a pile of flower petals (physical manifestations of familial blessings). While his living relatives search for him in the graveyard, Miguel runs into the calacas (skeletons) of the dead whose photos grace Abuelita’s altar. They’re as shocked to see that he can see them as he is and hope Imelda will know what to do to send him back before the sunrise traps him. She agrees to gift him a familial blessing for return, but only if he agrees to give up music once and for all. Miguel says no because de la Cruz can give that blessing unconditionally if his assumption’s correct.
It isn’t a choice between family and music, but present and past. Because music is in his veins, anyone who tries to stop Miguel from following his dream is forsaking family—not him. Finding de la Cruz is his destiny, but it won’t be easy in an afterlife where the celebrity is as famous as he was in life. Miguel enlists Héctor (Gael García Bernal) to help, a man who says he knows his great-great grandfather and will take him there in return for a favor. Héctor is fading from the spiritual world because no one on Earth remembers him anymore. If Miguel takes his photo and puts it on an altar, he’ll be able to cross the bridge and see his last remaining relative before disappearing forever.
It’s a lot of exposition to process for children—especially those entrenched in Christian ideals of Heaven and Hell. But its message of being true to one’s self is an important enough one to give them a chance to try. Maybe they’ll only enjoy the color and fun of seeing rainbow alebrijes (spirit animals made of papier-mâché brought to life) alongside cartoonish skeletons the first time they watch, but it will have been worth it if Coco earns a second viewing later as a result. Because it’s then that they’ll see its delicate push and pull between duty and aspiration, of making one’s dreams into reality no matter the implausibility. And parents will see how the rigidity of their beliefs can often push those they’re “protecting” farther away.
There’s a little of everything for the whole family in this way as the humor is broad (Danté is a dumb dog in the best way and the customs analogy for passing between worlds earns many laughs), the music infectious (Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez won Oscars for the over-rated Frozen and these songs are better), and message poignantly relevant in a day and age where stereotypes and generalizations have achieved new life against a divisive political climate. And the moment when the truth of Miguel’s heritage is revealed gives the prologue to Up a run for its money as far as tugging heartstrings to conjure an overwhelming emotional investment in its authentically drawn characters. Your love doesn’t need to cost your happiness. Life is simply too short.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures