Cinematic Releases: Coco (2017) - Reviewed

Pixar's newest feature, Coco, is not really about the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Although it takes place during the festivities, and the traditions of the holiday are a key feature in the story, the film's true focus is on the importance of memory - particularly, the memories we keep in our hearts of the people in our families who have gone before us. No one wants to be forgotten, but often, things happen and time slips away from us all. 

Coco introduces us to the Rivera family, who make shoes in the town of Santa Cecilia (a marvelous pun – St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music), forbidding young Miguel from indulging in his love of music. The family's matriarch, the titular Coco, is an ancient crone whose father left the family when she was a girl to travel the world as a musician, and ever since, the Riveras have banned all music from their lives. But Miguel dreams of playing guitar for the world, like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who is something of a Mexican Elvis Presley in Coco’s universe. When Miguel’s secret guitar is smashed by his grandmother, he runs away to find another so that he can compete in a talent competition in the town’s plaza, but failing to find one to borrow, he decides to take the one from de la Cruz’s mausoleum, and finds himself a strange living ghost face-to-face with his deceased family in the Land of the Dead, whom he recognizes from their photographs on the damaged family ofrenda in the world of the living. He has only until sunrise to return there, or he will remain dead forever – and Coco’s mother, Mama Imelda, will only grant him a blessing on condition that he will never play music again. 

Miguel’s journey starts out as a self-serving one, although he is tied to the typical Disney “follow your dreams” attitude – but the further he finds himself in the culture of the Land of the Dead, the more he begins to realize that the family ban on music is not the worst of its crimes. A spirit can remain in the Land of the Dead only so long as they are remembered by someone still alive, and old Mama Coco is slowly forgetting her father – a musician from whom Miguel’s talent and love for the guitar have been spiritually passed down through the generations. As he tries to make sense of his own place in the family, Miguel realizes that his most important task may be found in restoring Coco’s memories, and he must do it before they fade away forever. With the staunch heart of Pixar past, this spirited film is a celebration not only of Mexico’s rich cultural traditions surrounding Día de Muertos, but a vibrant and heartfelt paean to the memories we all carry – some beautiful, some painful – deep inside us, and the ties that bind all families, blood or chosen, in life and in death. 

Music is important in this movie, and Michael Giacchino’s score reflects the kinetic, determined personality of Miguel and the firm hold of the Rivera family over his life, as he crossroads between life and death, youth and adulthood, attempting to carve out an identity even as he seeks to unravel the reasons he is being barred from pursuing the passion he loves most. There is always more than meets the eye to a Pixar film, and as the secrets of the Rivera family past come to glowing light in the reflection of Aztec marigold petals illuminating the path between worlds, Miguel is awakened as a character both literally and figuratively. It is a stunning tableau of tradition and innovation, and even Dante – the beloved stray dog who follows Miguel everywhere – has his chance to shine, as spirits everywhere come alive in this film. 

Every generation builds its legacies upon the memories it holds most dear, and even when such legacies cause strife and disappointment, Coco suggests that it may be the younger among us who hold the keys to redemption – but only if they are willing to learn the lessons of the old, and through connections between the past and the future can find worth in one another. Through the lenses of heartache, pathos, warmth and joy in the Rivera family, we can all recognize our own family ties – whether they flow through the veins or through the soul. The heartbeat of memory pulses through each one of us, linking us to those we have lost, keeping them alive for as long as we refuse to forget. 

Share this review.

-Dana Culling