Don't Mention the Wall
Your regular correspondent finds himself unable to get to the cinema to review a new release. Instead, a look at a notable release from earlier in the year which got overlooked at the time...
Lee Unkrich’s Coco is an animated film from Pixar which concerns itself with the travails of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican lad. He is a member of a proud family of famous cobblers, who are notable for their hatred of all forms of music, due to Miguel’s great-great-grandfather having abandoned his wife and child for the life of an itinerant mariachi. The no-music ban is a source of some angst for Miguel, as all he wants to do is sing and play his guitar. This inevitably leads to some fretting (thanks everyone, I’m here all week).
Things come to a head when the family discover Miguel’s ambitions and react with predictable negativity. He runs away, and, through a series of plot developments just a little too involved to go into here, finds himself in the Land of the Dead where the spirits of his ancestors reside. (This is partly due to most of the film being set on the Day of the Dead, a celebrated Mexican festival.) They are all delighted to see him, but obviously he needs to get back to the living world before he gets permanently stuck in the afterlife. His family will only send him back if he promises never to play music again, which is obviously unacceptable to our lad, and so he sets out in search of the shade of his great-great-grandfather, whom he believes was a famous musician (Benjamin Bratt), who will impose no such unreasonable conditions. Recruiting the help of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a ne’er-do-well in the afterlife, and all the time trying to evade his unsympathetic ancestors, Miguel begins his quest…
I have to confess, the first time I saw the trailer for Coco my reaction was ‘You what?!?’, as the premise of this film – a heartwarming musical family adventure about, effectively, a near-death experience, stuffed with more walking skeletons than a dozen Ray Harryhausen retrospectives – was almost too bizarre and macabre to be credible. I could easily imagine Studio Ghibli making a film like this – and you could argue they already have, for it does share some plot similarities with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – but not Disney and Pixar. Yet here we are.
Never mind all that, I expect you are saying, exactly why is this film called Coco? A good question and I commend you for asking it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, my understanding is that Disney’s original plan was to call the movie either Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead (probably the former, to avoid confusion with the 1985 George Romero zombie movie of the same name), but they ran into trouble when they attempted to trademark the name for merchandising purposes, many Mexicans taking exception to what they saw as cultural appropriation.
Well, there’s a thin line between cultural appropriation, cultural celebration, and just plain old national stereotypes, and you have say that Coco does not navigate its way through this somewhat tricky territory entirely gracefully. From the opening blast of mariachi music to an initial gag about luchadore wrestling, it does seem like no stereotype goes unexploited in the course of the movie. One running gag, likely to go well over the heads of the tiny audience, concerns the artist Frida Kahlo and her idiosyncratic creative sensibility (Kahlo is, rather surprisingly, not played by Salma Hayek, but by Yo-Yo from Agents of SHIELD). It’s engagingly bonkers stuff, but not completely respectful to Kahlo or her legacy, I would suggest.
Still, on the whole this is a film which presents a very positive view of all things Mexican. The film may be about the difficulties certain characters have in getting from one world to another, but the film-makers have opted to avoid making any substantial statement concerning US-Mexican relations nowadays (although you would have to say that the film’s sheer positivity towards the US’s southern neighbour puts it rather at odds with certain elements of current American policy).
It also, so far as I can see, plays it pretty safe when it comes to matters spiritual and theological, declining to make any particularly bold statements when it comes to what happens after death. The Land of the Dead is a sort of second-order afterlife, very much like existence as we know it, by no means a final destination: the spirits of the departed only survive as long as the memory of them is sustained by their mortal descendants – once they are forgotten, they wink out of existence (inevitably this forms a plot point), moving on to… well, wherever it is that dead dead people go. The metaphysics here are slightly skewiff, if you ask me, and I doubt it’ll be enough to reassure parents who suspect that Coco has just a bit too much of an occult whiff about it to be suitable as family viewing, but it just about hangs together and serves the story well.
And it is, as you would expect from a Pixar movie, it is a story which hits all its plot beats with laser-guided accuracy. I suppose you could argue that the film’s adherence to a certain model of Classic Plot Structure makes it a little predictable, but there is also pleasure to be drawn from seeing such immaculate craftsmanship, and I doubt most of the audience will care much either way. Regardless of what you think of the script, Coco also has the seemingly limitless visual imagination and gorgeous aesthetics that are also something of a Pixar trademark – this is a breathtakingly beautiful film, only enhanced by the fact that the art department seem to have been at the peyote, going by the surrealism of some of it.
I should probably say that, if you’re a certain sort of person, Coco will grab your emotions and give them a good wringing. For all the wit and jokes, the film is really about family, and loss, and love. Obviously I didn’t Go, but my viewing companion (come on, the two genres of film I never go to see unaccompanied are family-friendly CGI animations and soft-core porno) definitely did. It is undeniably quite moving stuff.
I suppose there are people who instinctively take against Pixar films and avoid them on principle, although quite what that reason is I can’t quite imagine. For everyone else, Coco is another funny, moving, wildly inventive and extremely well-scripted film which I fully expect will delight the vast majority of viewers. Viva Pixar!