Pixar’s “Coco” is the animation studio’s latest box-office-breaking film poised to join rank alongside other animated greats like “Finding Nemo”, “The Incredibles”, and “Inside Out”. It seems safe to say, “Coco” has certainly proven itself.
Grossing over $745 Million worldwide and over $208 Million in US sales alone, not to mention winning both an Oscar and Golden Globe for 2018 Best Animated Feature, “Coco” has proven that an animated film rooted in non-American, non-European culture can be just as thought provoking, sentimental, and entertaining as retired superheroes and mislaid tropical fish.
Coco” follows the personal journey of Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who struggles to pursue his own passions and individuality in opposition of his well-meaning yet traditional family. The retold and told again tale of individual ambition versus familial obligation is one that many of us will probably recognize. Although this is not the first feature to address the particularities of this battle from a non-western cultural perspective – or even from a Latino perspective, it does provide an interesting take on the matter and presents it through a new medium.
In the past, many Disney animation features have faced criticism for their one-dimensional portrayal of non-European cultures and People of Color – African American culture in “The Princess and The Frog”; their depiction of racial stereotypes – Native Americans in “Peter Pan”; and their whitewashing of POC history and culture – “Pocahontas” in its entirety. In recent years, however, Disney has taken a more socially conscious and inclusive approach to diversity. For their film “Moana” Disney’s animation studio extensively researched Polynesian culture, consulted with Polynesian scholars, and cast Polynesian actors for several main roles. Although critics have addressed some of its more problematic aspects, including its deviation from actual Pacific Islander folklore, many critics also recognize a more aggressive attempt at authenticity. The result: an economically and critically successful Pan-American film that felt more authentic than exploitative. With Pixar’s “Coco,” this dedication to authentic representation seems to have been sharpened with use, lending the overall tone of the film a somewhat-relaxed genuine and imaginative flair. Disney’s new, mature shift in its portrayal of culture and race, paired alongside the Pixar standard of tear-jerking, character-driven animation, allow Coco to shine on screen and do so naturally.
The naturalness and ease with which “Coco” portrays aspects of Mexican culture can be credited, in part, to its cast – an all Latino ensemble featuring many film greats and favorites; in part, to its crew – led by Director Lee Unkrich and Mexican-American co-director Adrian Molina who also co-wrote the screenplay; and in part, to its attention to character – concentrating on the complex workings of the Miguel’s family, the Riveras. As the movie unfolds, Miguel’s initially personal, internal conflict transforms into an outward struggle against his family’s traditions and eventually evolves into a multigenerational enterprise to mend, reshape, and preserve the Rivera family history.
For many non-European peoples and cultures, personal and collective history has oftentimes been erased, redacted, and heavily edited all for the sake of presenting whatever narrative best suited colonizers and the dominant majority. “Coco” presents the narrative of a young man who, despite coming from a strong family, is struggling to grasp his individuality but finds himself weighed down by a fractured and incomplete history. It is this fractured history which still casts a shadow over the resilient Rivera family – predetermining their career options and heavily shaping their actions towards one another. Understanding their history does not make the Rivera family any less strong or resilient, it simply means they have the knowledge and understanding needed to consider a few more options and the agency to make different choices.
“Coco” shows how the present generation – whether that be first or second-generation immigrants, native Mexicans, or Americans – can still interact with the past and use it to shape our understanding of ourselves and our history. In order for us to truly grasp our passions and individuality, we must first grapple with and understand our past in all its intricacies.