I set out to the theater on Thanksgiving Day expecting to hate Disney-Pixar’s Coco. Four years prior, I wrote a scathing douchebag decree amid the uproar around Disney’s attempt to trademark the name Día de los Muertos. Given Disney’s history of perpetuating racial and gendered stereotypes and the absence of any protagonists of color in past Pixar films, I was dubious that their team (led by a white director) would capture the vibrancy and deep spiritual significance of the newly commercialized tradition. I suggested the film shouldn’t even be made. Within a day of the social media flurry and an online petition that garnered 21,000 signatures, the duo rescinded their trademark applications and issued a mediocre apology. But after watching the final product four years later, it’s my turn to issue an apology to co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and the Disney-Pixar team, which includes an entirely Latinx voice cast.
Coco is an unexpectedly brilliant and dynamic story about lineage, connection, and self-discovery. While it’s a film that somehow makes me even more proud to be Mexican American, it’s a film that will undoubtedly touch everyone. Set in a small town in Mexico that is styled with the same two-toned scarlet and white walls of Pátzcuaro and the cobblestone streets of my abuelitos’ pueblo in rural Michoacán, Coco follows the journey of Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy that dreams of playing guitar for the world but comes from a household that has banished music. To perfect his skills, Miguel secretly studies footage of a musical legend named Ernesto de la Cruz (who bears a striking resemblance to Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete) and yearns to follow in his footsteps. Instead of making music, the Riveras make shoes since the artisan trade has been proudly passed down through generations. When confronted with choosing between following his ancestors’ traditions or competing in a talent show held in Mariachi Plaza, a family curse intervenes and sends Miguel into the Land of the Dead—the majestic realm where passed souls who are remembered live on. Even as Coco zooms in on Miguel, his story is one that cannot be adequately told without the context of his family’s. And so we become immersed in an expedition of uncovering shared history in a world where ancestry is cherished and characters are realistically rounded.
While some critics preemptively reduced Coco to a Book of Life knockoff before it was released, comparing the two is a stretch. Each film creates a land where dead loved ones roam and themes of music are prevalent, but the similarities stop there. Most dramatically, Book of Life chose to cover pop and alternative rock hits from the United States like Radiohead’s “Creep” while Coco developed a soundtrack that elevates the beautiful lyricism and diversity of Mexican music. “Un Poco Loco,” a song central to Coco’s plot, is a Spanglish tune in the style of folkloric son jarocho that begins with Miguel letting out an adorably boyish grito Mexicano and is accented with a traditional zapateado performed by Hector (Gael García Bernal), an integral character that helps guide Miguel throughout the film. “Recuérdame,” sung by Hector and voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a quiet corrido about legacy and departure. Just as each song is deliberately selected to suit the mood of scenes, almost every aspect of Coco seeps with intentionality.
Gael García Bernal as Hector and Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel (Photo credit: Disney-Pixar)
Like a well-written piece of literature, Coco also illustrates the power of choice and detail. The film’s opening and closing titles are snipped from papel picado and lush marigold petals cover the Land of the Dead’s walkways. Elements of ofrendas and their significance are explained well, Oaxacan alebrijes fill the skies, and celebrity sightings in the other world include La Catrina, lucha libre hero El Santo, and the revered Frida Kahlo. When Miguel acts up, his abuela threatens him with a chancla only to be smothered with the kind of exorbitant adoration reserved for only the most chiqueado. Miguel’s special canine companion, Dante, is even depicted as a Xolotzcuintli, which is a pre-Hispanic breed that can be traced to Aztec traditions and is believed to carry higher powers. And as the animation team explained in a brief foreword before the film, thousands of buildings and 8.5 million lights are sometimes jam-packed into a single frame. No touch is too small for Coco.
In an interview with NPR’s Mandalit del Barco, Unkrich admits (in so many words) that the public backlash in 2013 put a fire under their ass to do better and pay closer attention to details. While people who use social media to speak out against oppression are often dismissed as “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors” by people who disagree, the 2013 critiques demonstrate the power of collective voice and the possibility of change. Rather than stewing in defensiveness, Unkrich and his team chose to listen and enact change. They spent six subsequent years closely visiting with families in Mexico, observing plazas, and partaking in traditional Day of the Dead festivities. Instead of attempting to tackle the holiday from an exclusively outsider perspective, Disney-Pixar created a team of competent cultural consultants including outspoken Chicano artist, Lalo Alcaraz, who is known for his social commentary against corporations like Disney, and Mexican Institute of Sound’s Camilo Lara. Their commitment to authenticity and research is evident, although there have been poignant critiques calling out an erasure of Indigenous identity and perpetuation of classism in the film, as noted by Binnizá writer Eren Cervantes-Altamirano. Additionally, a sorely out-of-place short with Frozen characters before the film, sometimes corny over usage of skull imagery, and unnecessary, cringeworthy incorporation of border politics and bureaucracy show room for improvement, but in a climate that is starved for representation, many Mexicans and Latinxs have clung to the film’s strengths. While Coco isn’t perfect, the film is proof that it’s possible to stay on the right side of the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation.
Beyond being a visually stunning and strong depiction of dominant Mexican culture, Coco reminds us all of the importance of celebrating love and lineage. When Miguel is able to immediately identify all of his family members after he enters the Land of the Dead thanks to years of seeing them on the Rivera altar, it makes me wish my own family had the means to keep better records and archival photographs. Coco encourages conversation and rather than mistakenly calling it a film about dead people, it is a film that inspires people to openly speak about those who have passed and keep their spirits alive through storytelling. Growing up in the United States, I’ve witnessed the way death is still largely taboo and something to be feared. And even as many Latin Americans are afraid that the commercialization of Día de los Muertos will cheapen its meaning (myself included), I’m happy to share this tradition and trust that so long as we continue to push for respectful and accurate portrayals like Coco and beyond, its legacy and significance will remain alive.