ETA: Mr Gustavo Arellano was not involved in consulting of this movie, so that was totally on me, and my faulty ass memory re: Reforma articles throughout the filming of this.
I’ll be responding to comments after work so, 1) Thanks for everyone holding me accountable on the mistakes i.e. The Riveras + Mr Arellano and 2) Thanks to all those engaging in conversations that have brought interesting points to the story, especially to those who have kept it to the writing/ pov.
The following review contains multiple spoilers, so sobre aviso no hay engaño.
I will also be focusing mainly on the world presented and offered to us by Coco, and not on the actual merits or construction of the writing per se.
Disney/Pixar’s “Coco” follows the story of the Rivera family, as experienced by Miguel Rivera, our 12 year old, music loving lead. The story’s starting point focuses on Imelda Rivera, Miguel’s great great grandmother, who was a music lover until her husband decided to leave her and their small child (Coco) to play music for the world. He never returns. Imelda then does away with everything musical and takes up shoemaking to make ends meet and to succeed for her family, which then grows, and the tradition of shoe making and music rejecting goes on.
This story was actually a poingnant moment for me, because I know (and have lived) through women giving up their dreams to put food on the table, women whose trauma has informed the reactions to the choices I made. I understand this small (and big) story. At this point of the movie (5 minutes in!) I was already impressed because it felt so thoughtful- of course, I thought to myself, these people did 10 years of research. Look at how they capture the spirit of this particular struggle. This feeling would be very short lived.
Miguel is kept away from music by a cartoonishly cliche Abuelita (who is only known by this moniker and gets no name of her own; there’s something to unpack there for sure), a chancla wielding woman who constantly insists that Miguel eat more tamales (I did laugh at that because it’s cannonical Latina abuela) and chases down street dogs and mariachis alike to stay away from her precious Miguel. Miguel wants to be a musician, but his family grows very upset (and at several points physical) everytime he so much as holds at a guitar; an act that culminates when Miguel’s secret altar to Miguel De La Cruz (an amalgamation of Pedro Infante + Jorge Negrete) is found and Abuelita drags everything out to the trash, including Miguel’s guitar which she then breaks in front of him. It is a moment that echoes a lot of Disney parental strife storylines (Triton’s destruction of Ariel’s human memorabilia cave, Cinderella’s dress shredding before the ball) but it misses the beat when Abuelita immediately brushes off Miguel’s heartache by having her act as though nothing happened, and telling him he will be fine after eating. It was a a sign of things to come for sure (honestly, no abuela would have cooled off that fast which shows you how none of the people in charge have ever interacted w one).
Miguel then goes to the cementery to try and get a guitar to enter a music contest, sneaks into a mausoleum, plays a dead mans guitar and is suddenly part of the world of the dead who come and visit their offerings every year for Día de los Muertos. His family finds him accidentally, and they assume this is the reason why Imelda (Miguel’s great great grandmother) cannot cross to the world of the living for the anual celebrations. Miguel is walked across a cempasúchil bridge, one where we see people going back and forth and entering some type of station which we are then shown in detail- every year, there are various agents who have a camera takes pictures of your features and sees if anyone has placed your picture on an altar. If the system recognizes your face, you are allowed to cross. If not, the cempasuchil bridge will make you sink in.
Essentially, immigration & customs for the dead.
The dead have immigration agencies and policies.
There is literally no other way to interpet it- what else is an entire bureacratic system that controls movement at a border? It’s immigration. The DEAD HAVE IMMIGRATION. It feels heavy to type that and it was a moment of horror- to hear a theater laughing at jokes that were playing out in people’s everyday lives, a lot of them their fellow country men, and one of them specifically sitting in that theater. Was nobody really seeing this, and was I going insane?
Large parts of the scene in this crossing point where played to laughter, but it felt so sinister- because, even in death apparently, life would be the same; we would be constrained by a system that allowed certain folks to enter or forcibly keep them out, and spirituality and magic aided in this. The weight of this permeates the entire story, because this is a major plot point for two characters- mama Imelda (Miguel’s great great grandmother) and Hector, who puts a magnifying lens on the injustices and horrors of the afterlife presented by the movie.
Hector is a character who cannot cross the bridge. He is seen as a charlatan of sorts, one of those downtrodden underdogs Disney loves to give a good resolution to (see also: Aladdin, Nick Wilde, Simba, etc). At some point in the story Hector and Miguel join forces to try and get Miguel to meet Ernesto de la Cruz; this is where the second most egregious and horrifying point of the story is revealed. Hector takes Miguel to the part of town where he lives, a part that cannot be defined in any other way aside from slums. It is where all the people who have no one put their picture on an altar reside.
Class, and social hierarchy exist in the Coco after life.
There are interesting ways this point could have been tackled- this whole idea of a capitalist after life, where the rich and the poor exist in very contrasting ways. It could have been a moment to turn bootstrap ideology on its head, or to explore how power dynamics affect our souls (afterall, it is souls that exist in the Coco world, they just happen to be skeleton shaped), but Disney/ Pixar were not the ones to tackle said territory.
Instead we are shown what happens to those in this section of the afterlife- after being regaled to living in slums because of their family’s unwillingness or inability to put their picture on an altar (this is also never explored), souls dissapear. Miguel gets to witness first hand through a character sputtering, moaning in pain and vanishing before his very eyes, a moment that is disturbing and violent.
When Miguel asks “Where did he go?” a question that could be examined, the answer he receives is “No one knows”. This is never mentioned again in the movie.
The most perturbing realization in the afterlife offered by Coco was the idea that there is no divine justice. During one of Coco’s main reveals, we are informed that the most regaled, wealthiest and beloved character in the afterlife (Ernesto de la Cruz) is also a really evil person. In a world where divine justice exists- the one religion always insists on- De La Cruz would have never had a mansion in the afterlife, never had material comfort, and yet, here he is, living the best and most grandest life IN SPITE of being an evil, lying, murderous man. What does this say of the hierarchy of fairness to those who suffer here, if they are to be poor and trampled on after death too?
There are several moments that tie back into these two main causes for concern in the movie and I could not help but wonder, where exactly had those 10 years of research gone? One of my favorite parts of Día de los Muertos is the offerings of salt and a glass of water (in fact, Miguel’s altar to De La Cruz sports a cup, informal and I assume, with water)- these offerings are placed for those whose relatives did not place them an altar, for whatever reason, so that they may be nourished when they visit too. Coffee beans are also included in these offerings for those whose names we may not know but who we still honor.
It is that very knowledge that ran through my head- did they just decide to skip on a basic part of the altar? Did they even know? Because these offerings would undo the main problems being faced by the characters of Coco.
Mainly this speaks to the fact that this horror story (which was mentioned as a love letter) was helmed by people who will never face challenges of separation or extreme class violence and hence can view them as far away problems to be transferred on to another cultures spiritual tradition. What Pixar does is obscene and violent and an afront to the very tradition that sacredly remembers and holds space for those whom we cannot name.
There are several troubling implications and questions that come from a setting where the entire possibility of your existence is at the mercy of someone else. For example:
- If a trans person is not accepted by their family unless they present in the way they deem acceptable, what happens then? Will they only be allowed if they are dead named? Can they come back at all?
- What about other folks in the LGBTQIA world? If their family did not accept their choice in life and they are not put upon the altar, are they also erased altogether?
These are choices we have to consider because LGBTQIA people who celebrate Día de los Muertos and who face some of the highest death rates in the world would face an additional reality of violence beyond this life. What were Lalo Alcaraz and
Gustavo Arellano counseling on specifically? Did they really give any input when there is an entire animated feature with immigration & customs? Does Arellano, who wrote Taco USA not know the most basic parts of an offering he purports to love? (Mr Arellano was not involved in consulting for this movie, but I do want to keep that in here for the sake of accountability. I messed that up, and that is solely on me. Apologies on that)
There are other horrific and offensive gripes:
- The portrayal of Frida Khalo as an eccentric, cooky artist- Frida was by and large a very focused artist, who was also a queer, disabled, communist woman. She hated Americans, and she hated art that glorified capitalism. She has been reduced to a joke. Fuck Disney/Pixar for that disrespectful shit on top of their hideous use of Mexican tradition to wipe their asses.
- When I heard this movie was a musical I was excited, but buyer beware- this movie has musical numbers but is not a musical at all. The only styles of music covered and the same old mariachi stuff and one banda song. In a country with huapango, marimba, son Jarocho, etc etc they did the one style everyone knows and a single Norteño song. How is this covering any new ground?
- Again, it is obvious that the people telling these stories are the ones who decry Donald Trump’s comment about Mexicans and cover their ears at the knowledge of Obama deporting more undocumented immigrants than any president before him. It is the only logical reasoning for including immigration & customs not only as a main plotline, but as a place for laughing; afterall if you have not confronted the trauma, what is it really to build a structure about it?
- How are there only light brown people in the Coco afterlife? Black Mexicans exist. The entire tradition of Día de los Muertos is rooted in indigenous rites (idk if the scene where Miguel ends up in a cenote is a wink to that but I doubt it, the writers are not that self aware)
- Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante both have cameos which, if that’s the case, why even invent De La Cruz? Maybe royalties? This one’s a lot murkier.
- For those of you who keep track of it- Coco does not pass the Bedchel test, or the Mako Mori test.
- There is a moment where Mamá Imelda who has a been in the world of the dead for quite some time, and who has agreed to take down the villain asks Miguel (a 12 year old boy!) how they should do it. So, way to completely ruin that interesting set up of women as authority figures.
- Santa Cecilia (cute wink to the patron saint of musicians there) is a made up town, which I get is part of creating a new world, but there is not enough Latin American representation to put together a geographical hodge podge and consider it a good deed- it makes for lazy story telling, and lax research because if you don’t adhere or study one place too closely, then you can’t be called out too harshly for fudging it, right? (Except surprise assholes, here I am!)
- There are legitimately no black people or dark brown people or any indigenous folx which all exist within the Mexican nationality, so good job on erasure of folks, again.
The movie had a few moments of interest, which could have made for a better story if only they had been pressed on a little more:
- The women in this family are the main decision makers- in the world of the living it is Abuelita who runs the family, in the world of the dead, it is Mamá Imelda. This was fascinating and worth exploring but, why do that when we can have a main part of the story be Mamá Imelda asking her 12 year old grandchild how to execute a plan in the afterlife?
- The alebrijes were cute and there was an interesting thread there on how they become one (as touched on by Dante, the xoloitzcuintle) but no one has time for that apparently
- This is the most brightly colored Disney movie that comes to mind. It is beautiful to look at.
- The singing of “La Llorona” was remarkable, as was the big Mariachi voice out of both Anthony Gonzalez and Luis Ángel Gómez Jaramillo. It was a moment of solace in this blasphemous shitshow of a movie.
- The characters in the afterworld maintain their personalities- there is stubbornness and fear, anger, timidness. This was interesting. Is this the reason for so many of the systems that the living had in this world? It would seem like a last minute excuse to cover tracks- the movie is not nuanced enough for this.
- That was a nice nod to the role of cenotes, I guess? Cenotes are generally seen as windows into the afterlife. Including one and doing exactly nothing with it more than using it as a backdrop was a waste.
- Better yet, why not make a Latin America movie that doesn’t settle on the most exploited American trope as it concerns Mexican culture? There are seriously wonderful traditions and wonderful countries outside of Mexico- El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Perú, the list goes on.
I cannot think of any other movie where Disney has tackled religious aspects only to remove all religion and replace the afterlife with a complete carbon copy of life as it is experienced by the living, without any consideration for those who face the daily oppression that is used as a convenient storyline.
At the end of Coco I was sobbing- but out of complete horror and sorrow, because in the afterlife of Coco, I am still trapped by a border that is not of my own making, I am still subject to laws I have no control or say to, and even in death I do not get to be with my family and have rest from sorrow or violence.
Disney would do better to let Mexicans helm their own traditions, instead of giving us love letters that are really a slap in the face.
There is no hope in the Coco afterlife.
Fuck them for robbing those who face the daily violence and separation from our families of a narrative that empowers us. Coco felt like a good argument on atheism, because truly, Coco is not a restful afterlife so much as it is a frightening prospect if you are poor, disabled, undocumented, black, LGBTQIA or otherwise disenfranchised.
I am angry but most of all, I don’t want people to touch the sanctity of my traditions while they use my life as a joke for the dead.