There comes a time in every cinephile’s life where they are forced to come to grips with an opinion that so deeply contradicts the zeitgeist, that it feels like shooting a puppy (hello, Kingsman). Today, I have one of these existential crises.
I didn’t love Coco.
Believe me, I tried to love Coco. I really, really did. I saw it twice (once in English, and once dubbed in Spanish to give it a fair shot), and even went through a borderline therapy session with one of my friends to dissect my frustrations with it in the hopes that warm mushiness Disney/Pixar usually provides would ultimately hit me like a giant spirit animal jungle cat. “Maybe there’d be a breakthrough,” I told myself. “Maybe you missed an important story beat or didn’t fully understand the character motivations.” Alas, it was all for naught.
Before I explain why Coco fell short for me, I want to get one important bit out of the way: I’m thrilled we’re seeing more diverse cultural representation in Disney/Pixar films. Give me 10 Cocos any day over another lackluster Will Ferrell / Mark Walhberg outing or the 10,000th movie about World War II (now with 100% more Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill). Coco is objectively sublime, and we need more mainstream films that strive to show a different cultural experience like it did. Beyond its positive hispanic representations, Coco is also unmatched in the visual effects department. Assuming you’re one of the many people who saw it this weekend, you probably caught the brief behind-the-scenes snippet that aired in front of the film. All I have to say to that is… 8,000,000+ lights:
¡Ay, Dios mío! That’s as impressive as it is insane, especially when you consider we’re having a cultural moment right now where the world struggles to understand how Warner Bros. could spend five weeks of valuable digital artists’ time and energy to remove Henry Cavill’s super stache for Justice League.
I wasn’t immune to the cardinal rule of Disney/Pixar films either; I cried. As any regular knows, rule #1 of Disney/Pixar films is this: You. Will. Cry. The tears of children and adults are what fuels the Disney juggernaut. I, too, paid this penance to the House of Mouse, but not in the way I thought I would. Here’s where the dearth of my attachment dawned on me.
The watershed moment in question takes place about 1 hour and 30 minutes into a 1 hour and 45-minute movie (including credits). Typically, by this point in a Disney/Pixar film, I’d have gotten out at least 3-5 good cries so the fact that I hadn’t welled up once by this point was already perplexing. It’s easily the most moving scene in the film. Without spoiling too much, Miguel, our protagonist, has just safely returned from his perilous adventures in the land of the dead. His respite is short lived, however, as his return is seized by the specter of a ticking clock. He rushes home, guitar in hand to seek out his great grandma Coco and share some important information before it’s too late. Along the way, he encounters his father, mother, and abuela. They each rejoice at his safe return, but hold him back from seeing Coco. Miguel’s inconsolable by this point and practically spastic. They don’t understand his frenzy and try to hold him back. With no other alternative, Miguel breaks free and steals into Coco’s room at the first opportunity, then locks the door in a panic. If he doesn’t act soon, he will lose more of the family he just learned to appreciate. Miguel tries to talk to his great grandma Coco as she sits idly in her wheelchair, but she is unresponsive. At the same time, his parents and abuela attack the door forcefully. He’s losing time. Miguel pleads with Coco, frantic now, trying to shake her out of her invalid state. “PLEASE MAMA COCO,” he yells. “You have to remember him!” Miguel’s family breaks through the door and pulls him away from his great grandmother. They think he’s agitating her. Desperate, Miguel breaks away one last time and tries the only other thing he can think to do. He slowly walks over to Coco, lifts his guitar and begins to play….
Finally, I was crying — but not at the film. I was crying at Coco, the titular character of the film and Miguel’s great grandmother. Why? Because Coco is one of the most realistic representations of an elderly woman stricken by dementia I’ve ever seen. Combine that with a somber song called “Remember Me” and you’d have to be made of stone not to weep in your chair. What struck me though was how the single moment and visual of Coco moved me, not the weight of everything that got us and the characters to that point. Some may argue that to be moved by one character in a film is to be moved by the film itself, but that wasn’t how I experienced it in the moment. Just look at her:
That’s a powerful image all it’s own. I feel sympathetic because she looks weak, content, and joyful all at once.
Digging deeper into why I hadn’t been able to connect with the characters up until this point, only one answer kept coming back to me — I couldn’t understand what it felt like to live in a family where music was forbidden. It’s basically a Footloose situation, except Footloose’s enforcement of those rules makes more discernible sense than Coco’s. In Footloose, the whole town bans music and it’s upheld by the law. In Coco, what “backup” is there to keep Miguel’s entire family from listening to music? A shoe!?! Even with the knowledge that such household restrictions are more likely to happen in other cultures, the logic of the its execution in Coco confounds me. A house without music feels akin to living in a world without air. In Miguel’s case, his family doesn’t reject music for things like financial reasons like some households may do when they go without computers; Miguel’s family rejects the notion of music on principle because his great, great grandmother was jilted by a former musician. See… I can get behind that as a motivation. What I can’t understand is how that rule gets maintained in a modern day household, when Miguel frequently works in a place where he is constantly exposed to music thanks to the town square, and television exists. How do you keep him away from music under those circumstances? It’s downright baffling.
Finally there’s the rules behind how the land of the dead actually works. With each new rule that was introduced, I backed away more and more from the film. For example, if families need to put up the photo of the deceased for them to successfully crossover from the spirt world, why is there a security checkpoint? Hector’s foiled plan early in the film shows that he couldn’t have gotten across the bridge without it anyway.
And how does food crossover into the land of the dead? From what I’ve researched, this seems to be part of the Dia de los Muertos tradition. Cool. I just… don’t get how the rules work (this one can definitely be chalked up to my ignorance; I think I’m looking for a few rules to be defined à la The Santa Clause in a movie that doesn’t need them.
Also, people exist in the land of the dead at the age they died… There’s dead children in the land of dead. We see one. It’s real, it’s honest and it’s utterly depressing if you think about it for more than two seconds (which is probably why we don’t spend more than two seconds with that mother-daughter duo that gawks at Miguel on the bridge). Not saying they should’ve changed that, but I think it would’ve been interesting to explore.
I completely recognize this last bit of nitpicking is ridiculous. After all, I’m someone who adores a movie about an orphan farm boy who is recruited by a mystical hermit to help stop his evil asthmatic cyborg father and gaslighting older mentor with wrinkly skin syndrome from ruling the galaxy… I shouldn’t dwell too hard on the logic of Coco.
Again, I’m glad Coco exists and thrilled for the scores of people who finally saw themselves represented on screen. I’ll just probably be one of the few who rewatches The Good Dinosaur before I give Coco another go round.
I guess that makes me un poco loco. 🤷♂️