People love this movie. It’s not their fault.
At the end credits of the newest Disney juggernaut of sentiment, which focuses on the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, there is an ample list of cultural advisors, most of them highly credentialed. It feels like a preemptive move to stave off accusations of cultural appropriation (a thorny, politically correct concept that is seldom ascribed smartly). Well, whatever advice these mavens imparted to the creators of this movie, it seems to have been in vain. Coco is painfully inauthentic. Everyone involved may protest that they studied this and they researched that, and they got this detail right, and that Coco is the number one box-office hit in Mexican history, but the sense of contrivance remains.
The core problem is the story. The plot is the most strained I have ever seen in a children’s movie. For starters, it hinges on the dubious premise of a woman scorned. So here we have stereotype number one: Coco is the heartbroken Latina who never forgives, a character out of a telenovela. Eons ago, her musician husband walked out the door with his guitar and never came back. Which brings us to stereotype number two: the unreliable Latin macho who is very good at romance and very bad at responsibility. The day he left, Coco vowed never to let music play in her house ever again. I can’t think of a less credible overreaction. I can understand Coco’s rancor to a point, but not that the family continues to uphold it for generations. Not even for the purposes of revving a plot engine can one fathom a Mexican household where music is forbidden, particularly when 95% of Mexican torch songs are devoted to expressing such romantic grievances. It would be far more natural for Coco to sing about her heartache than to deny it. We are not Boko Haram.
Thus, Coco’s great-grandchild, poor little Miguel (the talented Anthony Gonzalez), is the victim of an ancient marital grudge. He loves music and lives in a picturesque town filled with mariachis (stereotype number 3), but the fatwa on music carried on by his fiery, smothering grandmother is set in stone.
What I am about to say may shock you, but the problem is a failure of storytelling imagination. When my partner Beatriz, who is an artist and a director of animation, says that Pixar lacks imagination, everyone looks at her as if she were insane. As I endured this bursting piñata of colors, frantic movement, and worn plot devices, I could see what she means. For all the technical fireworks, everything in Coco is surface, a mimicry of feelings urged on by sentimentality. Yes, Pixar’s animators can skillfully recreate a boy’s trembling cheek, tears pooling in the corner of an eye, and the bewildered look of an old woman suffering from memory loss. They can render the look of human emotion, but what good is it when it’s at the service of superficiality? Coco is a movie made by focus groups, where all we think we know about Mexican culture is duly paraded as literally, charmlessly, and as emotionally unimaginatively as possible. It is true that stereotypes harbor a grain of distorted reality, but to cease to be stereotypes, characters need to be imbued with real humanity, by which I mean complex, multidimensional behavior. That is not the case in this movie. Every character is one-note.
When after an hour and a half of persecuting a poor child whose family won’t allow him to sing, someone pontificates that “family is everything”, I wanted to scream that family is everything when they don’t abuse you, and when they respect you for who you are. All I could think was, are these people dim? Is this what they do to a child, and to themselves? Having imagination could have meant, among other things, that Miguel could have taught his family a lesson in the perils of intolerance (and stupidity), but this is a manipulative, formulaic journey into cliché. I find Coco’s glorification of tradition at all costs pandering and insincere.
That’s the realistic part of the story. Then how to incorporate the Mexican tradition of Day of The Dead? By inventing a farfetched mythology in order to fill 90 minutes of screen time. I am not an expert, but, as a Mexican, this is what I know about this beautiful holiday: People celebrate their dead by going to the cemetery on the night of November 1st and decorating the graves of their loved ones with cempazúchitl (the holiday’s bright orange marigold), bringing them the things they used to love when they were alive — tequila, cigarettes, mole, books, music, their pictures, blankets to keep them warm, etc. They stay up all night at the graves with their dead, singing, telling stories. You can also put up an ofrenda, an altar, at home with the flowers, candles, pictures of your loved ones and the stuff they cherished. People give you a sugar skull with your name written across the forehead. There is fabulous food because this is Mexico; there is always fabulous food (which Coco mostly omits). That’s about it. Day of the Dead is outwardly colorful and lighthearted in its mockery of death, but quietly intimate and deeply moving, a more earthly than supernatural communion with the departed. By welcoming the dead back into our lives, it neutralizes the pain and fear associated with death. It’s about bringing the dead back by being with them in spirit.
Meanwhile, in the frantic land of Disney/Pixar, Miguel sneaks into the town’s Day Of The Dead singing contest by stealing the guitar of Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a revered, deceased musical idol, an action that turns Miguel into a half-dead kid, like a benign zombie, and lands him in the Land of the Dead. This place is a garish, overblown affair, that as my sister observed, looks as if they put everything Mexican into a blender and, I might add, took the lid off while the blender was still on. There, those who are still remembered by their loved ones cross a bridge of cempazúchitl in order to be with their living relatives, but if they are not remembered by the living they die again (!) unless someone gives them a blessing. I never heard any such thing before. The symbol of the bridge would be more poignant if it honored the holiday’s concept of bridging the divide between the dead and the living. Instead, there’s much busyness with manufactured plot devices about who gets to cross or not. This made-up stuff may seem innocuous, but it spills into the actual tradition like ink seeps into water, and eventually people can’t tell apart what’s fake from what’s real. It has happened before. The government of Mexico City started organizing a parade on Day of the Dead, inspired by the fake one featured in Spectre, the James Bond movie. People love a parade; who am I to spoil it, right? Well, I think it’s important to know where these things come from, and where they end up.
I remember most other Pixar movies as having a more playful sense of humor. Coco lacks the mischievousness and abandon with which one can truly have fun with one’s own culture. You can tell it’s afraid of even trying. The only scene that made me laugh was the abuela (Reneé Victor) throwing her sandal at someone and delivering a good punchline. However, this joke is rehashed several times, as if Latina women go about throwing their shoes at people every time they get angry (soon to become stereotype number four). The humor is feeble, and the characters lack edge and charm. Mexicans are known for our unique sense of humor, described in one word as ingenio — wit mixed with cheekiness. I didn’t find instances of this in Coco, because it is a movie about a basic idea of Mexico, but not a movie with a true Mexican sensibility.
Except for his beautiful singing voice, Miguel is a generic boy. Héctor, the character played by Gael García Bernal, otherwise a charming actor, is insufferably syrupy. Miguel’s mom has two lines of dialogue in the entire film and is pregnant (stereotype number five — we breed like bunnies). She remains mostly in the background, yet the movie features, not one, but two generations of grandmas. Having worked for many years in Hispanic advertising in the US, this reminds me of a unique local phenomenon, which is the supposed Hispanic obsession with the abuela. In Mexico we love grandmothers, but they are not required to appear in every commercial almost contractually, as they do here. This leads me to believe that Coco is, very much a by-product of the nostalgic mythology about Latinos encouraged by the Hispanic market in the US: a sanitized, idealized, watered-down version of our much more rich and complex cultural self.
Aesthetically, I was afraid of Coco the day I saw the preview. Mexicans have a natural genius for color and an amazing visual sense. Just go to any market in Mexico and you’ll see this in every display, whether it’s fruit, produce or products. Mexican crafts can be gorgeous, elegant, delicate, but Coco is an eyesore. It takes the skulls of the Day of The Dead and makes them into corny, cheesy creatures. They are more reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas or the skulls from Spectre than of the original calaveras by José Guadalupe Posada (the whiteface with black eye sockets and sewn lips is not a Mexican tradition; it came from Tim Burton). The music by Michael Giacchino is a mediocre, ersatz hodgepodge of styles (to be fair, no one ever gets Mexican music right in Hollywood). Beloved Mexican cultural heroes like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Cantinflas, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo make a brief cameo appearance. The movie mocks Frida’s penchant for portraying only herself, and presents her as a pretentious artist, which I felt was unfair and unfunny.
Finally, I was rather surprised by an involuntarily fascinating and bizarre plot twist (spoiler alert): Ernesto de la Cruz, the revered movie star and mariachi singer that Miguel worships turns out to be a secret villain who needs to protect his reputation at all costs. He has built a great big tower and every year puts out the most magnificent entertainment for the dead on their day. But Miguel discovers that his real great-grandfather was not the reckless macho his family thought he was, but a virtuous soul undone by De la Cruz, who stole his songs and even killed him. A pretender, an usurper, and a fake. Is this not reminiscent of the story of John Lasseter, the recently disgraced father of Pixar, for years a creative hero to many, and now a confirmed sexual harasser? Or is the movie subconsciously airing its doubts about its own legitimacy? I wonder.
I think the reason why Mexicans are lapping up Coco is because it pays lip service to our culture without representing anything that is actually our culture, like our sense of humor, our true musicality, our beautiful artistry. Think of any movie by Hayao Miyazaki. Japanese culture seeps through, not only in every frame, but in the sensibility, the way of looking at things, in how he tells stories, and in the kind of stories he tells. The way that Coco looks at things and tells the story is Pixar 101, a well-oiled generic formula designed to pull at our heartstrings.
But Coco comes at a time in which Mexicans have been relentlessly demonized and vituperated, whether they are here in the States supposedly sucking the state dry, or in Mexico, going on narco-fueled rampages; so a movie that champions a little Mexican boy and his heritage restores a sense of pride. A Mexican friend of mine mentioned, quite insightfully, that a family movie starring a brown, working class boy would have never been made in Mexico. This too is our sad reality, and may also be a reason why Mexicans welcome this movie. I have no doubt that Disney’s intentions are as good as they are business-savvy: according to the 2016 MPAA theatrical market statistics, “Hispanics continued to be overrepresented in the population of frequent moviegoers relative to their proportion of the overall population”. They are the second largest moviegoing audience in America after white people. Mexico and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world are huge film markets. It’s good business to be nice, but I think they still don’t get us.
Mexicans have a complicated sense of self-worth. National pride goes through the roof when the Mexican soccer team does not lose a game. A Mexican director wins an Academy Award, and it’s as if he were the official representative of all Mexicans, as if we all won the Oscar with him. This is not unique to us. It happens in every struggling nation that lives under the condescending and uncomprehending shadow of the biggest nation-conglomerate in the world. Mexicans are fond of Coco because it finally deigns to look at us, no matter how shallowly. It’s not offensive, it aims to please, it’s a successful pantomime of folklore. It makes us proud that the mighty Disney has lavished such million-dollar attention on us. We feel magnified, perhaps even vindicated, in spite of the fact that we should demand more substance and more insight from this cursory glance.