Hollywood is a (white) boys’ club, and so is film criticism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the multitude of reviews published about Pixar’s Coco. The majority of critics have been positive in their remarks about the animated feature, but many lack the cultural competence to discuss the most Mexican aspects of the film. From calling Coco inauthentic to misspelling words in Spanish, the stockpile of opinions disseminated by major media sites has one glaring omission – not one of them is penned by a Latino writer.
Here at Remezcla we don’t normally publish film reviews, but this felt like a watershed moment. Someone needed to step in and uplift the voices of Latino film critics. It’s about time English-language mainstream outlets started paying attention to our opinions since in Pixar’s Coco it’s our culture that’s being showcased. Below you will find capsule reviews written by five Latino film critics. Read them, share them, and follow the writers. They need our support to break through the noise.
-Vanessa Erazo, Remezcla Film Editor
UPDATE 11/22/2017: Today’s print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle will run a review of Coco written by pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub. He is 3rd-generation Mexican on his mother’s side. The same piece was published online a week ago. This brings the grand total of reviews written by Latino critics in major publications to one.
"Will bring you to tears"
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry”
Threaded through Pixar’s latest film set and focused on Día de Muertos celebration is a song about the importance of keeping those we love in our hearts, even and especially once they’ve left us. When we first hear it, sung in a flashy flashback by the dashing musical icon Ernesto De la Cruz, “Remember Me” is a buoyant anthem that has all the trappings of spectacle. Ernesto (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) is wearing a mariachi suit, his dancers are sporting frilly colorful dresses, there’s even an escalator involved on stage. The tender sentiment of the mournful lyrics are drowned in an all-too plastic production. For many of us, the number (which is played for laughs and establishes De La Cruz as the kind of cartoonish Pedro Infante of Coco’s world) is precisely what we worried would happen when the Emeryville studio greenlit a “Día de Los Muertos” film – and even tried to copyright that title! Wouldn’t the studio that made toys come alive no doubt fail at capturing what it is that makes this Mexican holiday so special? Wouldn’t it just dress it up in culturally tone-deaf representations that signal “Mexicanness” all the while betraying the fact that it was made by and for Anglos? Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth.
And not just because we can point to the large number of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that poured their hearts into the film. Coco knows very well that the story it’s telling – of a young boy who finds himself stranded in the Land of Dead and needs to get a blessing from his ancestors in order to return to the land of the living where he’ll have to give up his dreams of following in De La Cruz’s footsteps – is rooted in the spirit of the celebration, on family and destiny, on one’s originality and devotion. Shaded with an attention to detail that remains astounding (the deep-cut Frida Kahlo jokes are A+ as is the playful use of alebrijes), Coco is not (just) the flashy mariachi version of “Remember Me” but also its pared-down, family-sung rendition – a lullaby that will bring you to tears by the sheer power of its emotions and the beauty of its message.
"A blissful hug of acceptance"
Hollywood studios regularly make movies that cost $100 million and up. If it’s about pirates or wizards, execs will hand over as much as $300 million to producers. Films about Latinos typically fall on the other end of the spectrum with budgets under a million and a handful of features that cost up to $50 million. Never has a story that features an all-Latino cast surpassed eight figures in its production budget, until Pixar’s Coco.
The vibrantly colorful animated feature that draws on Día de Muertos celebrations could easily have gone askew, and Latino audiences are unforgiving. But with Coco, there is absolutely no cause for concern. With nods to the tres raizes (three roots) of Latino culture – indigenous, Spanish, and African – Pixar crafted a gorgeously drawn homage that rings true. While non-Mexicans may miss many of these references, they won’t enjoy it any less.
Everyone in the audience will belly laugh at Abuelita’s perfect puntería in the chancla-throwing department and wipe away tears when Miguel’s bisabuela Coco sings along with him to the sweetly composed “Remember Me,” but for Mexicans there is an additional burst of pride that piles on top of the rapturous feeling that comes from being entertained. From the little strips of corn husk lovingly tied around Abuelita’s tamales, to the bright embroidered flowers on the blusas bordadas worn by Miguel’s mom and sister (all signaling indigenous influences), and the zapateado (a traditional dance involving percussive footwork) that Gael García Bernal’s character Héctor performs in the Land of the Dead while singing the catchy son jarocho tune “Un poco loco” – Mexican culture is treated with dignity, honor, respect, and the utmost reverence. It is not exotic or seen as foreign, in fact it’s normalized.
As a Mexican-Salvadoran-American who grew up on a steady diet of Hollywood Anglo films and the “Hispanic Hollywood” movies of the eighties (La Bamba, Born in East LA, Stand and Deliver), there may never be a more important production than Pixar’s Coco. It’s a blissful hug of acceptance in a time when the very existence of Latinos in this country is criminalized. Just like a freshly made tamale on Christmas Eve or a loud mariachi song waking you up on Sunday morning, Coco feels like home.
"Beautiful, heartwarming, and visually exceptional"
After less-than-stellar attempts by a few major animation studios over the last few years to include Latino characters in their blockbuster family fare – clichéd offerings like supervillain El Macho in Despicable Me 2, taco truck owners Tito and Angel in Turbo and Spanish-language-mode Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 3 – it would only be natural to feel at least a little skeptical that, culturally speaking, the animation industry in Hollywood could actually get it right (2014’s The Book of Life came close, but left much to be desired).
With Coco, Pixar Animation Studios’ take on the traditional Mexican celebration Día de Muertos, audiences are given a film that will become the standard-bearer of a positive example of what the Latino experience can look like on the big screen for years to come. Don’t think Coco is a film that was created merely to placate Latino moviegoers. These smartly written, emotionally driven characters are what Latino audiences should expect going forward. Salsa-dancing, nacho-eating, lucha libre mask-wearing stereotypes never cut it before, and Coco proves why that representation should never be an option again if studios hope to capture authenticity in its storytelling.
Coco is a beautiful, heartwarming, and visually exceptional achievement. The story of Miguel Rivera, a young, ambitious musician who crosses over to the Land of the Dead to find his purpose in life by connecting with his ancestors, is a universal narrative about the appreciation of family, the acceptance of loss and the aspiration to become what you were born to be. From the vibrant and imaginative papel picado-inspired opening sequence to the extraordinarily moving final act (the song “Recuérdame” will likely melt you into a bowl of champurrado), Coco is a cinematic gift to Latinos worldwide and easily the best animated film of the year. Gracias, Pixar.
"Enchanting and dazzling"
Pixar’s ode to Día de Muertos is exquisitely full of life. Coco is a joyous, and surprisingly reverent celebration of all things Mexicano. Nearly everything about it is breathtaking, from its eye-popping visual splendor to its warmly beating heart. The vibrant colors, rousing music, and moving story will leave viewers alternately delighted and emotional. The animated film not only honors, it exuberantly celebrates the traditions, music and spirituality of Mexico, moving seamlessly between English and Spanish.
Endearing 12-year old Miguel Rivera (voiced terrifically by Anthony Gonzalez) has a large, loving family, and is particularly close to his adorably wizened great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). They run a shoemaking business – La Familia Zapateros. It’s a matriarchal enterprise, begun by Miguel’s great-great grandmother – and Coco’s mother – Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), after Coco’s father left with his guitar and never returned. Because of his abandonment, the family has banned music from their home for generations. Rather than spoil the emotionally resonant story, which unspools at an ideal pace, let’s simply say that music and Día de Muertos are equally important to the plot.
Coco is deftly written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, with plenty of gently macabre humor, as well as sweetly tender moments. Richly drawn characters are exceptionally well voiced. Gael García Bernal as the affable songwriter Héctor is a standout. Wisely, the pitch-perfect cast – as directed by Molina and Toy Story 3’s Lee Unkrich – is composed almost entirely of Latino and Mexican actors, including Benjamin Bratt and Edward James Olmos.
Michael Giacchino’s ecletic score incorporates traditional Mexican ballads such as “La Llorona” and catchy compositions like Germaine Franco’s “Un Poco Loco” and “Remember Me” by Frozen songwriters Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
The afterlife is gorgeously rendered, its skeletal denizens festively attired and coiffed, with a hilarious recurring joke featuring Frida Kahlo. Alebrijes – brightly painted, whimsical Oaxacan sculptures – are transformed into iridescent spirit guides that guard the dead. The story is steeped in Mexican folklore. Filmmakers took pains to get it right by spending time in Mexico and consulting influential Latino artists, as well as having the Mexican-American artist Molina co-write the script. Happily, Coco did not get whitewashed.
The movie’s message about family, forgiveness, and unconditional love is poignant and profound, flying in the face of presidential proclamations about rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers. Enchanting and dazzling, Coco is a resplendent love letter to Mexico.
"A custom-made gift created with local approval in mind"
Like the dead in Coco, who can’t return home if they are forgotten, memories are the only thing that borders can’t prevent me from returning to. Unable to travel to Mexico for over a decade now, I missed my grandmother’s funeral. Mama Jose, as her grandchildren called her, was a strong and loving matriarch – not unlike the title character in Pixar’s latest. In a bittersweet way, that unresolved loss slipped back into my being as the wondrous rendering of a country I can only see from afar materialized in every richly designed frame.
The separation highlighted in the film may appear to be strictly metaphysical, but for immigrants it echoes the pain of not being able to be near loved ones while they are still alive. The hope for something beyond this physical realm becomes more spiritually critical when thinking of those we couldn’t say goodbye to in this world. Whether conscious or not, Coco will speak to Mexicans on this side of the border in relation to that incomplete chapter miles away from their new home.
Coco is a bridge between those who are gone and those who remain, whether that means they’ve departed forever or just find themselves apart. It’s a bridge made of bright cempasúchil, centuries of hardship, economic migration, reconnections, newfound appreciation for the past, and culture depicted through animation. It’s a bridge between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, between relatives that never met because time or laws didn’t allow it, between English and Spanish, between rural Mexico and chilangos like me, and between Hollywood and Latinos.
For those in Mexico, like my mother, Coco feels like a custom-made gift created with local approval in mind. In my mother’s eyes, the movie is so specifically Mexican she wonders whether people around the world will enjoy it. I think so, but in any case, Mexicans, the most important judges, have already spoken via ticket sales. Sure, global viewers might pick up on the universality of the story, but will they notice seemingly minor embellishments like the cameos by Mexican icons, the Mexican soccer jersey on one of the characters, the pan dulce on the table, the details in the grandmother’s apron, or the rustic cemetery? Probably not, and that’s okay. We noticed.
On a joyfully childish level, Coco gave me hope that if Mama Jose is where Mama Coco is, then someday borders won’t keep us apart.