Memory, Music, & Joy: Pixar's Coco
This article was originally published with the Book Smugglers for their holiday festival, Smugglivus, in December of 2017.
I think we take Pixar for granted.
There was a time before Pixar was great. There was a time before Pixar existed. Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has had an astonishingly strong run in animated film, with a better proportion of quality than most studios their age could dream of. Logic dictates that Pixar cannot possibly keep this up. Someday Pixar will mean nothing more than “okay” quality, or worse. All that rises must fall. These things go in cycles, right?
Well, yes, BUT.
There can be more than one cycle at work. There is a cycle wherein great films inspire dreamers to go into filmmaking. The memory of what inspires them lingers, and propels them to create works of the best quality that they can manage – time and studio demands permitting, of course. The dreamers-and-workers make great films, which inspires more people further, and the cycle continues.
Where was I? Oh yes, I say this because a few critics reviewed Coco with high marks, but said the story was a little thin. I think these critics might be taking Pixar for granted – just a pinch.
Coco is the best film I’ve seen this year. It stuck with me, in a way that few movies do. Long after viewing, I found myself humming the songs, imagining the vivid tableaux of color and form, reflecting on the perfect ending sequence.
Coco, the film, is about many things, but one of the most important is Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is an autumnal Mexican holiday, with ancient roots, linked nowadays with the Catholic rites of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The day is dedicated to remembering and honoring the loved ones who have gone before, not with dirges and gloom, but with flowers, food, and riotous color. It is a joyful day of remembrance. Coco is about Dia de los Muertos (albeit coming from an American studio, not a Mexican one) and about memory. But what about its story?
Coco tells the story of the Rivera family, seen through the eyes of young Miguel. Miguel wants to be a musician, but a long-ago tragedy caused the Riveras to ban music. The only person that Miguel can confide in is his great-grandmother, Coco. After Miguel finds out that his great-great-grandfather (Coco’s father) was a musician, he goes on a quest to reclaim his family’s legacy – a quest that takes him to the necropoli and caverns of the Land of the Dead.
Of course, “wants to be an artist, but the family won’t let ‘em” is a good solid old seed for plot. Coco makes this aspect work by showcasing all of the ways that music can bring people together. Music provides a through-line for memory. In one scene, music expresses grief; in another, the joy of performing together turns two wanderers into friends. In the movie’s most ecstatic scene, music expresses the joy and love that a family feels in celebration, and in doing so, magnifies it.
While Ratatouille was a staunchly individualist fable about art (yes, there’s a plotline about Remy’s family, but it never really clicked for me) Coco explains art as connection, all wrapped up in a race-against-the-clock story featuring mariachi skeletons, sacred marigold petals, and a funny dog.
Coco represents another important departure for Pixar, hopefully a new trend: after years of white protagonists (or animals, or monsters), Coco is set in Mexico, features an all-Latinx cast, it is steeped in the meaning and imagery of Dia de los Muertos, and features a generous sprinkling of Mexican Spanish in the English dub. Coco cannot be separated from this culture, and it is clear that Pixar approached this material with respect and also excitement. (Disclaimer: I am not Mexican-American.)
The animation industry (like every industry) has many problems, and one is that the field is very white and dominated by men. Hopefully, one day we will see many more films inspired by Latinx cultures — seen from the inside! — some of them inspired by the memory of Coco, in a reinforcing cycle, or, as a certain Puerto Rican songwriter would phrase it, “A never-ending chain.”