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Still from Pixar's Coco. 
Still from Pixar's Coco. 

Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Masterfully Tugs At Heartstrings

“Que nuestra canción no deje de latir /Solo con tu amor yo puedo existir/ Remember me…”

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Coco, an animated coming-of-age tale in the beating and colorful heart of The Land of the Dead, has officially become the highest-grossing film of all time in Mexico.

That isn’t shocking, considering Coco’s pristine and meticulous consciousness, sensitivity, and unabashed pride of Mexican culture.  

But, in the United States, in the midst of hatred for the other publicly picking up rampant steam and the alarming go-aheads for detrimental policies that target Hispanic minorities, Coco has been the notable underdog, championing the box office charts for two consecutive weekends.

The popular review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes has definitively double-ranked Coco at 96%, making it a “Top Ten” of the Pixar franchise. This means that not only do career critics agree that Coco is up-to-par with WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Inside Out, but also that average American audiences (the general movie-going and popcorn crunching public), loved Coco as much as they have loved Monsters Inc. or The Incredibles.

If Coco continues to be a hit at this rate in the U.S., hardcore Disney fans know that its future could likely transcend from the big screen to a spellbounding attraction replete with wondrous animatronic effects and engineering feats. A park ride would effectively memorialize a celebration of The Day of The Dead at California’s Disneyland or Florida’s Walt Disney World, two of the States with the largest Latino populations. Considering that these two theme parks are widely regarded as the most famous in the world, this inclusion would have profound implications for our country that would be felt abroad-- and not just in Mexico.

Even in China, people are feeling the tale of Miguel, his xoloitzcuintli Dante, and skeleton con artist/guitarist Héctor going on adventures in Aztec marigold-hued afterlife villages. So far, the film has struck a chord to the tune of $75.6M there.

What is it about this story then- a story so distinctly and purposefully Mexican -that has people around the world overwhelmed and overjoyed with this soon-to-be classic?

The top three reasons why Coco is a universal must-see are stunning and powerful artistry, cultural competence, and catharsis.

Adults that claim that animation is “just for kids” are ignorant of the genre and the potency of its limitlessness, plain and simple.

Divorced from the constraints of reality (and even the realness that good CGI should strive for), animation can tell a tale in cleverly imaginative ways and break away into unexpected narratives without sacrificing real lessons.

Pixar stepped up it’s “wow factor” with Coco, landscaping such a charming and exquisite mortal realm, it’ll put your own fantasies of Heaven to shame.

There are no gilded golden gates, white robes, or halos. Instead, splashes of turquoise,  magenta, and tangerine set alebrijes to flight, dapper skeletons to dance, and hairless dogs to grow wings. Thousands of pixels and layers were implemented to make over 500 detailed costumes for not only the protagonist’s deceased loved ones, but also the filler characters, conveying that no role was too small or insignificant.

This also proves that Pixar was determined to be as culturally competent as possible. Even during the moments when the film suspends the viewer (and Miguel) from earthly physicality and the laws of nature in The Land of The Dead, there is a visible determination to keep the storyline authentically Mexican. Conscientiousness of a country’s people and a caution towards stereotyping included portraying its live and its dead in simultaneously believable and banal ways.

Take Miguel’s grandma for instance. She is tiny, feisty, chock-full of metal dental fillings, forever sporting a floral nightgown, and always ready to take aim with a worn-down leather chancla, playing into the cliché of The Latin American grandmother. At the same time, however, Miguel’s grandma is a complex character, so loyal to her mother, to her family, and to the past that she cannot fathom the generational detriment that comes from a disregard for the future.

So, while Pixar makes sure to include hackneyed- but tried and true -tropes of abuelitas serving their nietos grotesquely large quantities of food (no matter their insistence of being full), Director Lee Unkrich knew that to tell a story that reflects a culture, one must make every character a valuable and key player for plot.

Much of the cultural competence achieved by Coco is attributed to the important amount of people of color and Hispanics accredited for working on the film. With its co-director Adrian Molina, almost the entire cast, much of its production team, and consultants (including AL DĺA’s regular political cartoon contributor, Lalo Alcaraz), it was proven that cultural sensitivity and appreciation from an intimate perspective, rather than appropriation or reductionism from an outsider, makes for better movies. Coco’s numbers bolster that claim.

The final magical and crucial element that ties viewers from The United States, Mexico, China, India, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa together and outshines mere plot or script, is the narrative device of catharsis, one that Pixar has been perfecting since its beloved 1995 film Toy Story.

But, I regret that I can’t tell you much about that. Why you’ll cry, why you’ll feel an ache in your heart, why the main track will leave you weak at the knees, and why you’ll root for unlikely heroes in the end, are all remnants of the catharsis that Coco radiates. They are also major spoilers. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

Bring your family, your date, or yourself to go see Coco, available now in theaters everywhere!

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