Movie Review: Coco (2017)
My mother suffered a stroke last year that left her weak on her right side, dependent on walkers and wheelchairs, and without the ability to speak. She could say a few coached words, or a string of enthusiastic nonsensical words, but that was about it. She couldn’t write, either, so all the history inside her was lost to us in an instant. I go back to Doctorow: “We should have talked; we should always have talked.”
But she could still sing. Apparently that function is in a different part of the brain. In the car, we’d sing old Sinatra and Ella songs, old show tunes (“Oklahoma!”), and Christmas carols. If you started out, and she knew the words, she’d pick up on it and sing along.
That’s probably why the scene that really got to me in Pixar’s “Coco” is near the end, when 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), back from the land of the dead, sings the song, “Remember Me” to his dying great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), and she, a mass of wrinkled flesh giving in to gravity and inevitability, slowly comes to life again. She smiles and sings and rises and remembers.
Of course, sap that I am, that scene probably would’ve gotten to me anyway.
That said, “Coco,” by Pixar standards, and despite its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating, was a slight disappointment. It didn’t wow me like “Inside Out” or “Up” or the three “Toy Story”s.
Is it the familiarity of it all? Our hero goes out beyond his world, and has X amount of time to return or stay there forever?
Is it that Miguel doesn’t learn much on his journey beyond family history? In “Up,” Carl needed to learn that it’s the boring stuff that matters, and in “Inside Out,” Joy needed to learn to let others, such as Sadness, do their jobs. Miguel? Nothing like this. He's a smart kid, following his bliss, and he returns as ebullient as ever.
There’s no great sacrifice, either—the way Carl sacrificed his house for Russell and Bing Bong sacrificed his very existence (even the memory of his existence) for Riley. I think that's the key; you need sacrifice.
The set-up isn’t bad, I suppose. Miguel has music in his soul but his family is not only longtime shoemakers but against music, since Miguel’s great, great grandfather left his family to make his name in music and never returned. Miguel, though, wants to perform, like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a long dead, lantern-jawed star of his great, great grandmother’s era. Then he discovers that Ernesto might be his great, great grandfather. That makes Miguel so determined to perform in the “Day of the Dead” music competition in the local plaza that, even after his grandmother, Elena (Renee Victor), destroys his guitar, he takes de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum, strums it, and, oops, winds up among the dead—with a 24-hour window in which to return.
I like the border crossing. If your descendants put out your photo on the Day of the Dead, then you get to cross and spend the day as a spectral figure among them. I like the layers of death. You finally, completely die, or at least disappear from the Land of the Dead, when no one living remembers who you are. That’s about to happen to Miguel’s hapless companion, Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), nicknamed “Chorizo,” for supposedly having choked to death on one.
Miguel could actually return to the living quickly. He just needs to receive a blessing from a family member, via an Aztec marigold petal. But his family being his family, they demand he never plays music again. So off he goes in pursuit of another family member, de la Cruz, who is as big a celebrity in the Land of the Dead as he was in the living. He lives in a mansion surrounded by security, gives annual concerts, and receives incredible bounty from the living.
Turns out he’s also a thief and a murderer. Nice. He stole the music, and then the life, of his former singing partner, who turns out to be Héctor, who turns out to be ... wait for it ... Miguel’s great, great grandfather! Which is why he never returned to his family. He didn't choke on a chorizo; he was poisoned.
Eventually, of course, Miguel’s family unites against de la Cruz, who is revealed (to both the dead and the living) to be a scoundrel/murderer, and Miguel makes it back in time to sing the song to Hector’s daughter, Coco, so she can remember him, and allow him to remain in the Land of the Dead, and allow me to, you know, tear up.
Although, at that point, wouldn’t Miguel count as someone alive who remembers Hector? And what did they do at the border crossing before photography—i.e., for 99 percent of human history? Was it portraits/paintings then? Meaning only the rich made it back?
So many questions, Pixar.
But, for the movie, this is the big one: What did Miguel learn on his adventure? He learned...
- His hero was a jerk
- His great, great grandfather wasn’t
That’s about it. It’s really his family that needs to learn a lesson. Sadly, that lesson is obvious: Music is good. Or: Let your loved ones pursue their passions.
I liked “Coco.” It just didn't exactly take me to the moon.