Multiculturalism done right
Pixar's 'Coco' delivers deeper message in fun, vibrant package

Multiculturalism done right

In Disney/Pixar's movie "Coco," young Miquel finds himself in a land where people only exist as long as they are remembered.

Willie Krischke - 12/14/2017

It’s good to see Pixar back on its game. “Cars 3” was a cynical, empty advertisement for toys, without a doubt the very bottom of the Pixar barrel. But “Coco” recovers the reasons why I love (and faith-fully attend and review) Pixar films. It is visually stunning with a big heart and a willingness to both go for broke emotionally, while also making sure it earns every sentimental moment.

But I’ll tell you, I was worried. I’m still not sure what I think about the way Disney/Pixar is looking to other cultures for storytelling material. To be frank, I’m torn, and it makes me a bit nervous every time. It is fun to see non-white characters and non-European cultures on the screen, in all their beauty and variety, and I am glad that both white and non-white children will have heroes with brown skin and dark hair.

On the other hand, these movies can feel like Western tropes dressed up in the clothes and customs of other cultures. 

For example, “Coco” is the story of Miguel, a young Mexican growing up in a proud family of shoemakers. Music is forbidden in his family, because of a great great grandfather who was a musician and deserted his family to pursue his career. But Miguel has a secret love and talent for music, and finds his family identity too constricting. This basically makes “Coco” a “follow-your-dream” type of story (as was “Moana”), and that particular genre is rooted in the Euro-American immigrant experience – the tension between honoring your roots and striking out to do something new. (Yes, I’m aware that Latinos immigrate to America, but their reasons – and their story – are often different from European immigrants.)

In pursuit of his dream to become a famous musician like his great great grandfather, young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) lands himself in the land of the dead, inspired by Dia de los Muertos. It’s visually striking, amazing animation, an intricately layered underworld inspired in part by Mayan architecture, and in part by the ofrenda altars that play a central role in the story. This land functions as a subset of the land of the living; people here only exist as long as they are remembered; when they are completely forgotten by the living, they fade into nothingness. On one day of the year – Dia de los Muertos, of course – they are permitted to cross a flower bridge into the world of the living and visit their families, but only if their photo occupies someone’s ofrenda.

Trapped among the dead, Miguel must seek out his great great grandfather and get his blessing in order to return to the land of the living. To do so, he enlists the help of a scrappy skeleton named Hector, who is just trying to get someone to remember him. There’s a twist that’s pretty easy to guess, and as a result, Coco sags a little in the middle with the weight of the familiar. A lesser movie would have played this out to its predictable conclusion, but “Coco” has a few more tricks up its sleeve. This is the extremely rare film where the third act really is the best. Pixar doubles down on character development and conflict even as it ramps up toward the climactic resolution of its central problems.

And along the way, “Coco” manages to invert that “follow your dream” formula. The villain, after all, is a guy willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his reputation. He is beloved by his fans but acts, behind the scenes, like he has no relatives. You wonder who remembers him and who only remembers the fame-distorted image of him. And while Miguel’s dreams and desires are important, he learns that they are not as important as his responsibilities to his family. And when he honors those, doors open for him that otherwise would remain closed. It’s a both/and solution to an either/or problem. “Coco” thrills with its visual invention. But its core elements – dead relatives whose choices and character still influence who we are and who we will become; the power of loving memory; the importance of honoring those who have gone before us – is both timeless and increasingly relevant to a white, Euro-American audience. Many white people like myself have so little sense of history; we are far more concerned with the future than the past, and cut off from a key piece of our identity as a result.

I think “Coco” is multiculturalism done well. I expect that Latin Americans will enjoy this movie because they see their culture and values portrayed on the big screen in a respectful and engaging way. I hope that non-Latinos will see a rich culture that has much to teach us about what it means to be human and part of a family that extends long before and long after our own lifetimes. “Coco” brought a tear to my eye because it created space for me to reflect on my own family, the people I remember with love and affection, and the ones that tragically have been forgotten.

Top Shelf

Rockin' Reverend, a king & a doll, and gastro heaven
Rockin' Reverend, a king & a doll, and gastro heaven
By Chris Aaland
04/18/2019

Dude, where’s Makar? He’s in a burgundy and blue jersey, of course! The day after skating in the NCAA men’s hockey championship game for UMass – and two days after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the most talented college hockey player in America – Cale Makar signed his entry-level contract for the Colorado Avalanche.

Meltdown goes big for 25th
Meltdown goes big for 25th
By Chris Aaland
04/11/2019

The sweet sounds of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, guitar and upright bass will fill the air this week as the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown turns 25. The Meltdown rolled out all the stops for the big anniversary, too, by booking one of its finest lineups ever.

Delicious water and funkalicious roots
Delicious water and funkalicious roots
By Chris Aaland
04/04/2019

It just doesn’t take much anymore. I spent my 51st birthday Sunday afternoon at Durango Craft Spirits, listening to tunes with my buddy Michael McCardell, while enjoying a couple of old fashioneds and a mule.

Goodbye to BREW, gospel- ninja-soul & Cuckoo's 20th
Goodbye to BREW, gospel- ninja-soul & Cuckoo's 20th
By Chris Aaland
03/28/2019

Sadly, one of Durango’s favorite nightspots and a magical brew-pub, BREW Pub & Kitchen, closes its doors this month. Like many other restaurants and businesses, the aftermath of the 416 Fire chipped away.

Read All in Top Shelf

Day in the Life

It's Snow Joke
It's Snow Joke
By Stephen Eginoire
04/18/2019

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra once said. That’s a sentiment no one can argue with in these parts. According to Snotel, as of April 12, we are sitting at 153 percent of average snowpack in the San Juans.

Slippery When Wet
Slippery When Wet
By Stephen Eginoire
04/11/2019

What could be a better way to squander a beautiful, warm spring weekend than to spend it sloshing through an icy, water-filled canyon where the non-appearance of direct sunlight is the only guarantee?

Salty Dawgs
Salty Dawgs
By Stephen Eginoire
04/04/2019

A few thousand CFS of cold, clean, snowmelt roaring through one of the driest climates in the United States is a sight to behold.

Etched in Stone
Etched in Stone
By Stephen Eginoire
03/28/2019

With tens of thousands of Ancestral Puebloan sites spanning the Four Corners, rock art decorates countless desert-varnished boulders and cliff walls. These ancient etchings conjure tales that almost seem best left to the imagination.

Read All in Day on the Life