Pixar offers empathetic engine and political insights in ‘Coco’

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

When we first meet Héctor, a character voiced by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal in Pixar’s new film “Coco,” he’s attempting (for what seems like not the first time) to illegally cross a border.

The scene is played for comedy -- he’s dressed up as Frida Kahlo in this particular attempt -- but the urgency and desperation underlying this illegal act is not looked over by the filmmakers, and the empathetic engine of the scene becomes clearer as Héctor’s story unfolds. If any segment of the “Coco” audience enters the theater with assumptions and moral judgments about this kind of behavior on borders, the film offers a powerful invitation to see a different point of view.

In real life, the voice actor spoke out against President Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico while presenting the Best Animated Feature award at this year’s Oscars ceremony (a category that will undeniably be associated with “Coco” next year, though I think the film deserves and stands a chance to get a Best Picture nod, too).

More recently, García Bernal told Variety that he dedicates “Coco” to “all the children who have ancestors from Mexico and Latin America” in the age of Trump.

“In this moment, these kids are growing up with a lot of fear because the established narrative says that they come from families that come from rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers,” the actor told the publication. “We are such a complex and profound culture, and these kids need to be empowered to stand up and say that what is being said about them is a complete lie.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The border that Héctor is attempting to cross in “Coco” is not a separation of countries, but one between the normal world and the Land of the Dead, a realm populated by skeletons of those who have passed on. The skeletons are a pure delight from a design and animation perspective: Their vast diversity of shapes and sizes may stretch credulity if you’re a stickler for strict anatomical accuracy, but they are incredibly appealing to look at, and even more so when they move.

Miguel, a young living boy (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) finds himself in the Land of the Dead by mistake during his family’s celebration of the Día de los Muertos holiday, kicking off an adventure that is as filled with imagination and wonder as anything that American movie screens have ever projected.

I absolutely adored “Coco.”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Like the film’s director, Lee Unkrich, I am a white American. But I loved being immersed in a culture and tradition different from what I’m used to in my American animation (or my lived experiences), and I appreciate the efforts that were obviously made to allow “Coco” to be an authentic expression of Mexican culture, rather than a caricatured appropriation of it.

Co-director Adrian Molina, who also wrote the screenplay with Matthew Aldrich, is a Mexican-American artist at Pixar, and the studio consulted with a team of cultural advisors to help shape the story -- including cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who was a vocal critic of the Walt Disney company and Pixar when the parent company made an obtuse effort to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos.” Such a misstep illustrates the perils of an American company led by white corporate leaders wading into cultural waters for its narrative-based product-making, but the studio’s reaction to criticism illustrates how “Coco” managed to so skillfully navigate those perils to create something as sensitive and deeply loving as the final film turned out to be.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The English track of the film, which American audiences will see in theaters, also features an all-Latino cast (well, plus John Ratzenberger, who has appeared in all 19 Pixar movies to date, and has a tiny part here too). This inclusion of a wide variety of Mexican voices in the film’s soundscape is another factor in the film’s beating heart and cultural authenticity.

The text of the film itself also works in the favor not only of the film’s “political correctness,” but its sharp political and moral point of view. Not only does the story flip the stereotype of the “criminal crossing the border” by investing in the urgency of the immigrant’s perspective, the film also explicitly tackles appropriation as a concept, and could serve as a jumping off point to learn more about that idea.

It comes across in film with the discovery that one of the more powerful and adored characters has gained power by exploiting the talents and ideas of others, which -- as anyone who has seen “Dreamgirls” knows -- is also the history of cultural appropriation in American entertainment.

“Coco” succeeds by resisting the tendency to impose its white American corporate perspective on the Mexican characters and culture it is interested in, and instead turning the microphone, the paintbrush and the animation toolkit over to those with authentic personal stakes in that culture.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

I haven’t even mentioned the music, which makes “Coco” the closest thing Pixar has come to a full musical, and which is absolutely thrilling. And there’s much more to say about the hilarious and profoundly moving character animation throughout. And the thematic points the film has to make about family relationships are beautifully presented, as well.

There’s too much goodness in this film to say one in review. Fortunately, this is a movie that exists now, so we can all see it and talk about it again and again as long as we live -- and who knows? Maybe even longer.

Derrick Clements is an independent arts reporter, podcaster, columnist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter @derrific and find all his work at derrickclements.com.

Review: 'Coco'
Grade: A
Director: Lee Unkrich
Voice cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Running time: 1 hour, 49 min
Rating: PG for thematic elements
Note: “Coco” will be preceded in theaters by the 21-minute Disney short, “Olaf's Frozen Adventure.”