‘COCO’ is art with a lasting legacy & powerful pulpit for change

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

There’s probably no more important film to see with your family this year than director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina’s COCO. The stirring, dazzling power ballad to family is brimming with life, culture, color and music. Its emotional profundity is an infusion we all could use right when we could all use it the most.

The animated feature tells the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who dreams of becoming a world-famous musician. The trouble is that his family has banished music from their lives for decades and have forbade him from chasing his own ambitions toward music superstardom. Miguel’s must journey to the land of the dead to uncover the mystery behind this ancestral ban. It’s there when he meets up with a local hustler Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), who’s also looking for some familial closure of his own.

The sentiments expressed – about tradition, remembrance and the power of the family unit – are genuinely powerful. While celebrations of the Day of the Dead are very specific to Latin culture, there’s a universal resonance to these feelings. And similar to other films in Disney-Pixar’s canon, this is what fuels the beautiful art expressed in the film.

While you can never predict when art will intersect with the pop culture or political zeitgeist, there is something to be said when it does – as it does so strikingly here. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, Edward James Olmos, who voices Héctor’s forgotten spirit friend Chicharrón, said he valued what this art will mean to future generations growing up in this world’s tepid, tumultuous political climate.

Because I am Mexican, full blooded on everybody’s side; not only am I a person who has been inside of this industry for over 50 years; not only have I really tried to understand myself inside of this art form – but this really became something really profound. The brilliance of it was the real beauty of the storytelling. I told Lee and Darla [K. Anderson, producer], [when] we were standing there taking photographs – I said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done. You won’t know for like, 15 or 20 years. It’s gonna take that long for it to resonate throughout the planet, and really take hold of what art does to people in their subconscious mind.’

Six years ago, you didn’t know that we’d be politically in the shape that we’re in – nobody did. Nobody knew that Mexicans were gonna be treated like they’ve been treated over the last year. The last two years have been very difficult for us, and it’s hard not to come about and have an attitude. You try to stay strong, knowing that the pendulum swang one way – it’s gonna swing back. And when it does, it’ll have a different reaction, and we’ll have another sense of who we are, and the changes. This thing placed us in a very strong position for the future. People are gonna say thank you to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about. As Chicharron, doing that one scene, it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form.

With so much negativity directed at other cultures, specifically in America, Bernal echoed Olmos’ comments, feeling that this will give a respectful megaphone for those needing a more powerful pulpit.

I’ve been saying this a lot, but I really have to stress it over and over again, because if I have to do a very personal dedication, this film is for the kids – the Latino kids growing in the United States. In the official narrative, it’s been said that their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are rapists, murderers, drug traffickers. And these kids are being born in a moment of huge, complete fear, and they have to fight against the lie, and it’s very complicated to argument against the lie.

This film, or this expression amongst – with many other forms of expression that happen day to day – it’s gonna give kids a way to feel confident of where they come from, of where their parents, great-grandparents, grandparents come from, to know that they come from a very sophisticated culture, and to know that they have the possibility to always have access to that hive. They can come up with new answers to what’s needed in life that we, as humanity, need right now. This film opens up that discussion, and it is a beautiful reflection on death, and the celebration life.

Olmos thinks that COCO has the potential to lead to a greater understanding of how our past impacts the present – and possibly the future.

People are gonna see this movie, are gonna come out really moved – especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, or your loved ones, and you haven’t really gotten into your own family. You haven’t been even to maybe the cemetery, where they’re buried now for however long they’ve been away from you. When’s the last time you visited your great-great-grandmother’s burial site? ‘Oooh, that’s a touchy situation they’re in.’ Most of us don’t even know who they are, because the stories weren’t passed on. They’re gonna walk out, and they’re gonna feel an emptiness, and they’re gonna try to fill that emptiness with the knowledge of what they just got. They’re going to investigate, and move forward. That’s why I’m so grateful. 

COCO opens on November 22.

Header photo: Hector (voiced by Gael García Bernal) and Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) go on an adventure in COCO. Courtesy of Disney-Pixar. 

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.