By: Jessica Marvin/Co-editor in chief
A few weeks ago, my family and I braved the post-Thanksgiving traffic to catch Disney Pixar’s Coco in theaters. The 15 minutes we were stuck motionless on the highway were spent in anticipation. My mom and I shared side-glances, excited to see a movie about our culture. I didn’t check my expectations at the door; I was ready for my socks to be knocked clean off.
Coco centers around the Mexican holiday, Día de Muertos (which you can learn more about here). Voiced by 13 year old Anthony Gonzalez, Miguel Rivera drives the story through the eyes of a child passionate about the one thing his family has rejected, music. After making a discovery about his ancestors, Miguel is inspired to play, no matter his family’s feelings. But his plans are deterred when he finds himself in the Land of the Dead. Surrounded by his deceased family members, he must receive their blessing in order to return to the land of the living. But there’s just one problem: His great-great grandmother Imelda won’t help him without binding him to a future without music, a fate Miguel is unwilling to accept. Determined to return home while maintaining the opportunity to play, he must go on a journey to find his only other known ancestor.
I hadn’t had time to be weary before entering the theater. In fact, my unbridled excitement was almost child-like. It wasn’t until I was in my seat, phone off, popcorn at the ready, that I began to have doubts.
What if this whole thing is a big caricature of Mexican culture?
What if it’s all references to the “chancla”?
What if, god forbid, they play us like they have so many times before, and use music from SPAIN in the background?
The story had an all Latinx cast, which however sadly, feels like a huge triumph for us. Featuring beloved Mexican actors such as Jaime Camil and Gael Garcia Bernal, it was obvious that the film knew its audience. It didn’t feel like an outsider’s portrait of what someone, from their two Latina college girlfriends, gathered being Mexican would be like. It felt authentic, researched. It felt like it was for the people whom the story was about.
(Take note, Hollywood. When you make a movie about a group of people, include them in the production from beginning to end. That’s how you make magic. That’s how you guarantee authenticity.)
Part of what made the story so touching was the way the Riveras paralleled my own family structure, including the power of the family matriarchs. Not to mention all the references to Mexican culture and iconography which gave the film a whole other layer of familiarity. I also appreciated the fact that the Spanish used in the movie was far from “neutral”. Miguel and his family repeatedly use phrases unique to Mexico, which elicited many knowing glances between my mom and me. It was a new level of representation. From the colloquialisms, to the culture and customs, I sat in that theater and saw my family’s culture reflected on the big screen in a way I hadn’t before that day.
However, Mexican or not, this film will resonate with you. It is, at its core, a human story. It’s about passion, family, destiny, and finding yourself, themes people from anywhere can relate to and empathize with. The film is funny and moving in a way that can translate to all cultures.
All in all, Coco is genuinely a masterpiece. The animation is riddled with detail, liveliness, texture, and color. The music is incredible and completely necessary to the wholeness of the story.
Of course, no piece of media is enjoyed thoroughly if it is not also criticized. One of my concerns with this film, or rather, one of my concerns with the way the Disney company will most likely treat this film, is the fact that the Mexican art featured in the film will ultimately become a huge profit market for the company. In fact, the online Disney Store already has Coco merchandise for sale which feature Mexican textiles and patterns. We live in a capitalist society, and Disney, no matter how sentimentally and emotionally attached one may be to it, is a business. They want money. And boy, are we all excited to give it to them. But the problem with Disney mass-producing and profiting from these patterns, kind of walks the line of appropriation. And when paired with the knowledge that the company originally wanted to trademark the name, “Dia de Muertos” as what later became Coco’s working title (yes, that really happened), there exists a certain level of uneasiness about the whole thing. Yes, the film was beautiful. Yes, I ugly cried (twice). But Disney will inevitably be in the market to sell the Mexican community back our own culture. And to sell people of other ethnic groups the Mexican culture, with no compensation to the Mexican artisans who have been creating the art for millennia.
Don’t get it twisted, though. I still loved this film. Though I would strongly advise to satisfy any yearn for Coco merchandise that features Mexican art by buying directly from Mexican artisans and businesses, I would also strongly advise seeing this movie. Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by the film.
Bring tissues, though. Like, a lot of them.