You Must Remember This, by Reed Lackey

23 Nov

Stories about death, deferred dreams, broken families and old wounds don’t immediately resonate as fodder for children’s films. But Pixar’s latest entry, Coco, attempts to tackle these subjects and more. Stunningly, they not only manage to craft an accessible and entertaining fable, but they also express profound observations about legacy, familial heritage and the power of art to unite and to heal.

Directed  by Pixar alum Lee Unkrich, Coco tells the story of young Miguel, who longs to be a musician like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. He has tremendous talent to substantiate his dream, but his family has forbidden even listening to music, let alone playing it, due to a generations old wound where their great-great-grandfather abandoned his family with ambitions of “playing his songs for the world”. When Miguel rebels against his family’s restrictions on the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, he finds himself trapped inside the land of the dead, with only a few hours before sunrise to return home before he will be stuck there forever.

In typical Pixar fashion, Coco is visually staggering. The studio has continually pushed the boundaries of what is possible in animation and Coco is no exception. Nearly every frame is bursting with vibrance and richly textured colors. The realm of the dead is breathtaking. It is elegant and lovely, fully realized as a cohesive world, and delightfully macabre without ever being scary. The visuals have a lyricism that supplement and harmonize the musical soundscape also permeating the film.

As a connective tissue, music plays a substantive role in both the narrative and the themes of Coco. There is a deliberate relationship between music and memory that serves a specific narrative function, but also plants seeds for further thought and reflection beyond the film itself. Coco is, in many ways, an exploration of and love letter to the power of music to unite, to inspire, and even to restore. There are expectedly entertaining anthemic performances, but one of the film’s most deeply moving moments revolves around a simple lullaby sung by a father to his little girl. The subtle beauty of it creates a ripple impact through the rest of the story and its characters in a powerful and emotional way. Since this is Pixar, you probably already presumed you’d need at least a few tissues ready and you’re absolutely right.

But the exploration delves deeper than mere sentiment. Music in this film is inextricably tied to heritage and to cultural and familial identity. It is a key which unlocks long-bolted doorways and a thread which ties generations together. The film’s opening exposition establishes music as a source of division and pain, and the inevitable reconciliation the story gives us is – although somewhat predictable – deeply moving. There are indeed certain narrative clichés where the film’s characters and story beats can easily be intuited. Although there are effective reveals and surprises to the story, there are also plenty of moments where you’ll likely whisper, “I knew that was gonna happen.” But the overall narrative is so refreshingly inventive that the occasional familiar trope is easily forgiven and doesn’t dilute the story’s delights or emotional impact.

The film also has a great deal to say about the tension between the sacrifices we make for our dreams and the ones we make for our families. Countless stories have tackled this tension before, but precious few have ever managed to marry the value of both dreams and heritage as organically as Coco does. The films makes a solid case that dreams can extend from heritage and that the two need not be at odds with one another. It’s also deeply refreshing that the film embraces the culture at its center without even a hint of appropriation.

But the most impactful element of Coco is in its focus on memory. While the film touches on issues of identity, ambition, and even long-standing generational pain, the heart of the story is in remembering. I’d have to spoil too much to fully explain the link the film makes between heritage and hopes, as well as family and legacy, but suffice it to say that sometimes the very thing you’re trying desperately to forget may be the one memory needed to heal and restore all that’s been lost and broken.

With Coco, Pixar once again adds a rich and powerful story to their already impressive catalogue. Its visuals, its soundtrack, and its thematic explorations are lovely and entertaining. It’s funny and macabre, emotional and inspiring. In short, it’s a beautiful film you’ll likely never forget.

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