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‘Coco’ is a colorful movie with a refreshing culture

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If you like original Pixar films that speak to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, or you’d like to indulge in some state-of-the-art computer animation,  “Coco” is your best bet when you hit the cinema. Intriguing story moments, nuanced themes, pleasant musical tracks, and a truly beautiful setting keep “Coco” strong from beginning to end.

In some ways, it follows in the footsteps of Disney Animation Studios’ “Moana,” by continuing a trend of telling stories that are set beyond the confines of conservative American culture. The movie follows a talented young musician named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who lives in Mexico with his large multi-generational family. While his family is loving, they have tragically and dogmatically outlawed music—a doctrine that began when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to pursue a career as a musical artist.

“Coco” takes place at a special time of year for Mexico. Miguel’s grandmother, or “abuelita” (Renee Victor), takes the liberty of explaining the “Día de los Muertos” holiday to him and the audience. Each year, commemorators place photos of deceased loved ones on an altar, travel to their burial sites and enjoy the company of their spirits, who return from the Land of the Dead to visit their living relatives. In contrast to a loud Pixar movie with prominent American sentiments (think “Cars”), “Coco” centers itself around Mexican culture’s handling of grief and death.

When Miguel’s abuelita catches him with a guitar in hand and destroys it before his eyes, he runs away heartbroken. In need of a replacement so he can perform in the local talent show, Miguel steals a cursed guitar from the tomb of the famous musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Strumming its strings, Miguel crosses dimensions into the realm of the dead. He maintains a charismatic bravery as he encounters supernatural phenomena and animated skeletons.

The characters that Miguel meets on the other side add both conflict and fun to the story. His skeletal relatives carry the same baggage as his living ones. They bring him to the Land of the Dead, but his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) refuses to help him any further unless he swears off music forever. Without the help of his family, Miguel makes a deal with a paranoid outcast named Hectór (Gael García Bernal). Hectór’s gradual development into Miguel’s musical mentor comprises some of the most memorable moments of the film.

Unlike many movies written for children, “Coco”’s plot is neither too simple nor too predictable. Because of this, the audience is along for the journey rather than waiting for the characters to catch up. In addition, the story cleverly creates opportunities to see new sides of the world that has been imagined by its creators.

The themes of “Coco” are also universally appealing. While the challenge of being part of a family with strict values is central, the joy of sharing in traditions is also given a spotlight. As the movie progresses, deeper questions of trust and loss are explored. Miguel’s confrontations with the truth are difficult, and viewers are forced to consider issues from various angles.

Pixar delivers on its signature guarantee by making audience members cry in their seats, as Miguel’s love for so many things carries him past adversity. He is not necessarily a naturally stubborn person, but he refuses to yield to injustice, even when the source of injustice is his own family. The idea that disobedience can produce good things contradicts some of the usual lessons on how to approach authority, and this is a timely message.

“Coco”’s culture and themes are successfully captured in the music of the film. The spirit of the Mexican guitar is featured distinguishably throughout the soundtrack. Although some people call the music forgettable, the movie’s reprise “Remember Me” is original and emotional.

Probably the best word to describe “Coco” is ‘colorful.’ This is of course true visually. The animation of the film’s Land of the Dead uses eerie night-time tones to complement the bright features of the setting and characters. But the movie earns this mantle in other ways as well. Speaking more figuratively, the culture encompassing the story is vibrantly colored with the celebrated customs and traditions of our characters. Similarly, the moral dynamics and music of the film display a number of different moods.

Beyond telling a rich story in aesthetic fashion, “Coco” opens up a dialogue about death and loss that is often avoided in contemporary conversation, showing that relationships can continue after life. Often times, it takes the customs of other cultures to suggest new ways of dealing with universal human fears and adversities. This is the value of diversity and what makes “Coco” an exciting work of art.

Dillon MacInnis can be reached [email protected]

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