Coco And Me: A Personal Essay First, A Film Review Second

Before we get going too far, I should warn you that this will end up being more of a personal essay than a traditional film review. You have no reason to read all of this or even care about this very subjective take, but I feel such an urge to just talk about Coco and the only way that will feel genuine is if I talk about myself. If you just want a traditional review, you’ll probably want to just scroll to the last paragraph or two. Sorry in advance.

I wasn’t kidding about this being personal, so if you’d rather not hear about my dumb thing, at least read what these five Latino film critics have to say about Coco.

I have never met my biological father, and that’s something that I’m mostly okay with. Don’t worry about me, my mom is the best dad I could ever ask for. He is a Mexican man, which makes me half Hispanic. That’s how math works. However, due to him leaving, I’ve had almost no exposure to Mexican culture in my regular life. For most of the time I’ve known of this, my Mexican identity consisted of occasionally making jokes about liking spicy food because I never thought about it. Much more recently, I’ve been struggling with what it means to be Mexican. Do I have to behave differently in order to claim my Mexican heritage? Does it matter that I don’t know the history? Is there such a thing as not being Mexican enough?

I don’t have those answers yet, but I’ve been coming to terms with that and accepting this part of me that I don’t understand.

As a young child, two of my very favorite films were Aladdin and The Jungle Book, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. Granted, I wasn’t aware of my own ethnicity at this point, but I was drawn to the characters of Aladdin and Mowgli because I knew they were different. It’s no surprise that Disney films tend to skew towards vaguely European source material, so these two prime examples of non-white people spoke to me from an early age. My least favorite thing about Coco is that I wasn’t able to grow up with this film as well, though I’m unbelievably grateful that others will get to.

As the critics in the previous link discuss, Coco absolutely nails a lot of cultural details that I wouldn’t even know about, so I was elated to hear how well these things were accomplished from people who have grown up with this as their identity. I don’t believe I’m the right person to talk about the traditions of Dia de los Muertos and their portrayal, the focus on matriarchal family structures, or even the allusions to famous Mexicans like Frida Kahlo or professional El Santo. Okay, maybe I’m qualified to talk about wrestlers, but that’s not my point.

The basic plot description from Letterboxd states: Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history.

There’s more going on in the film than just that, but that should be enough to clue you in without needing to spoil things. ONE BRIEF SPOILER that is actually revealed fairly early is that Miguel believes that his great great grandfather is in fact his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. We are told that he left his wife and child to pursue his music career, which is why the family hates music and won’t allow it to be played or even discusses, a problem for the starry-eyed Miguel.

Beyond the main plot points, Coco is a film about legacy. In the Land Of The Dead, a person “lives” there for as long as they are remembered by the living. For someone like Ernesto de la Cruz, he will continue to be remembered by anyone who discovers his music and movies, essentially granting him an eternal afterlife. For people who aren’t famous however, they will only go on as long as their family or friends still tell their stories. Once there is no one left in the living world who remembers them, they fade away from the Land Of The Dead and no one knows what happens after that.

Legacy is a thing I’ve worried about for as long as I can remember, ever since I started considering a future in the arts. Frankly, it’s a dumb thing for a young person to be so concerned with, but the logic of it doesn’t change how my brain works. This is part of why Hamilton connected with me so well, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is so focused on not only improving the world that he lives in, but doing so in a way that he’ll be remembered. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? It’s a heartfelt query.

This is a pretty intense and grandiose notion for a movie like this, but Pixar has always found a way to breach into heavy adult concepts while making them accessible for children. That’s why they are successful; they don’t make kid’s movies for adults, they make adult movies for kids.

Coco is a visual spectacle, though that isn’t a surprise from Pixar. The bridge to the Land Of The Dead is made of beautiful orange flower petals, and the inner working of the city itself are a gorgeous tribute to the real city of Guanajuato. The animal spirit guides, or alebrijes, are stunningly colorful works of Aztecan artwork come to life, and the realization of the living skeletons that populate this land is brilliant as well. There is always something wondrous to look at in every frame.

The voice cast is terrific, particularly the prominent roles of Bratt and Bernal, and the core of the story is lost without their talents. The music is beautiful and also authentic, and I can only hope that a song like “Remember Me” can gain even a fraction of the traction that a “Let It Go” or a “How Far I’ll Go” had.

I can’t remember the last time an animated film meant this much to me. I’ve fallen in love with plenty non-animated films recently, but none of those felt quite as personal either. Coco might not fit your story the way that it fit mine, but it absolutely deserves to be seen if not only for the technical filmmaking and the emotional storytelling. It deserves to be discussed as one of Pixar’s best efforts, and it’s absolutely my new favorite of the bunch.

I won’t even attempt to give you an objective score for this film, even though I can usually separate my feelings to be both objective AND subjective on a film. I can’t do both here, and I won’t.

Coco: 10/10

Nick Potter

Co-founder of The Filmsmiths. Degree in Broadcast & Cinematic Arts with a minor in Cinema Studies from Central Michigan University. Pretty much the barbecue sauce of people but I'm doing my best.

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