Pixar’s “Coco” Is An Enchanting Homage to Mexican Culture

A spoiler-free review.

Screenshot via.

“Coco,” Disney-Pixar’s latest film, had the weight of the world on its shoulders. From being criticized at conception for trying to trademark Day of the Dead in 2013 to comparisons to “The Book of Life” — a different movie about the same holiday released in 2014— most Mexicans (myself included) were wary about “Coco.” We were wrong.

Simply put, “Coco” is a love song to my people.

“Coco” tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel Rivera, who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. However, his shoe-making family forbade music when his great-grandfather abandoned his wife to become an artist. Things go awry when his grandmother breaks his guitar, forcing Miguel to steal de la Cruz’s guitar on Day of the Dead, which transports him to this metaphysical realm of the afterlife.

It’s hard to articulate exactly what about “Coco” makes it so special. For me, it was the little details: the inclusion of la chancla, abuelas making more tamales than you can possibly eat, the way the hazy light illuminates the ofrenda. I knew “Coco” was going to do Mexican culture justice within the first five minutes because of how the papel picado was animated. Yeah, I know. It’s kind of ridiculous, but those details matter! Watching “Coco” felt like I was back in Texas, in the backyard of my Mexican family-friends where I spent so many holidays, nodding my head to mariachi music and sipping horchata. Disney obviously did their research and for that I’m grateful.

As for the plot itself, get ready to sob. “Coco” thematically deals with family, passion and death — so, of course, it’s going to pull a few heartstrings. Oh, and the music is stunning and truly honors the mariachi music of the period. “Remember Me” and all of its variations will either be stuck in your head for a week or make you sob. There is no in between.

Side note: Please toss any arguments of “Coco” being similar to “The Book of Life.” Yes, they’re both about Day of the Dead. Yes, they’re about boys who can’t pursue music because of familial obligations. But they’re completely different in terms of stakes. “Coco” isn’t a love story. It’s a story about family. Also, people never complain about Christmas movies being about Christmas/love/family despite the fact there’s 50 million of those movies. Complaining about “Coco” being about Day of the Dead is counterintuitive. We want more movies to be about Mexican and Latino culture, not less. Hopefully in the future, those movies will tackle other holidays, traditions and themes.

Here’s the thing: We Mexicans, especially after the election, are used to being demonized in the media. Historically, there have been few Mexican role models for kids, except for Dora the Explorer and Speedy Gonzalez. Representation matters, plain and simple. Seeing people in media and in other industries who look like you, who understand you, who share the same culture as you changes how you view the world and how you view yourself. Representation is vital for those who are ostracized in their own communities because they look or act different. So, naturally, Disney making a movie about your culture is a big deal (case and point: “Moana”).

The pressure for “Coco” was unsurmountable because if “Coco” failed Mexicans, then Disney failed Latinos and they would never touch Latino culture ever again, at least for the foreseeable future. There were hundreds of ways “Coco” could have gone wrong, from perpetuating stereotypes to outright misrepresentation. “Coco” could have framed Day of the Dead as this strange, gross thing brown people do. They didn’t. Instead, they portrayed the Day of the Dead with the utmost respect and in a way that made sense to non-Mexican audiences.

That being said, go see “Coco.” While it brought in $71 million domestically on opening weekend, it doesn’t hurt to show Disney and, therefore, other media companies that audiences are here for movies about people of color.