Peaking into the Layers of Folklore in Pixar’s Coco


By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

Despite reports of Disney•Pixar having a troubled start in the development of Coco, the movie I saw in all its charming glory and the reveal of how many anthropological experts were acknowledged in the movie credits certainly put any concerns to rest. The fact Hispanic illustrator Lalo Alcaraz was one such person hired on to ensure accuracy made this animated take in what Día de Muertos is about all the more enjoyable. As a group, these people insured this animated film is culturally relevant. Together, with director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2 & 3) and writers Adrian Molina, Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich, they made a film that’s true to the spirit of many past Pixar films, where keeping family ties is important.

Not everyone is fully aware about what the Day of the Dead represents. As a film about young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) wanting to be a musician instead of a cobbler — against his family’s wishes — just what he has to face in his journey is an adventure. From the land of the living to the city of the dead to find his great-great-grandfather, all he wants is someone’s blessing for what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Upon stealing a guitar in a mausoleum, he inadvertently enters the afterlife and pretty soon, he meets his deceased relatives. They are, pardoning the pun, aghast and side with his great grandmother’s desire to keep the family away from ever enjoying music. None are allowed to listen to it or perform.

However, he believes that two generations ago, his great grand patriarch was a performer and he left the family to pursue his dreams. Miguel believes Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) is this relative and this passion is hereditary. But there is more to him than meets the eye. To say more would ruin the film.

In this magnificent city of the dead, filled with neon lights lighting various haciendas to acknowledge this special day, the view is like that of admiring all the colours you can find when a peacock spreads his wings.


The boy is a stranger in a strange land and he befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal) in his search for answers. According to the beliefs of the native people of Mexico, the Nahua (Aztecas, Chichimecas, Tlaxcaltecas, and Toltecas) sees life is seen as a dream. Only in dying can a human become truly awake (1). The boy’s entry, near death (realization of what is more important, his music or being with family) and exit is perfectly depicted. Since the presence and scent from the petals of the marigold is widely believed to guide the spirit to their altars (known as ofrendas), to disturb them in any way or bless them will grant those who hold it a kind of magic.

Though viewers are not treated through a look at all the layers of heaven and hell in this world according to ancient traditions — interestingly, his pet dog is named Dante — this detail will hardly matter to most viewers. I hoped to see hints of an older world peeking in from time to time. To see the Aztec gods intermingle with the deceased in this city of the dead would have been spectacular. They might have been there, but were hiding in bipedal form. Instead, I was treated with something else which is just as respectable.

The multi-coloured spirit guides who helped the Rivera family out are are traditionally known as alebrije — imaginary creatures which, by my best guess, are like Chimeras from Greek tradition. Instead of guarding places, they protect their ‘masters.’ In this film, they are also very protective and loyal. Although to recognize which set of bones belong to whom required each person to sport tattoos or to be shaped individually unique. Artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) popularized this style and although his original intent was to make political and satire out of the upper class at the height of his career, it has since been appropriated to commercially symbolize of this Mexican holiday.

Pixar is consistently scoring high marks in getting the details right for films looking at unique cultures. The only miss here is that I wanted to understand the lyrics of the songs being sung in the later acts. This film definitely ranks up there with Brave and Ratatouille, I’m looking forward to see what’s next, after next year’s plate is cleared with Incredibles 2. Lost to time and in general interest is in what lays Down Under. To see what this studio can do with aboriginal Australia’s lore can be just as exotic.

4 Stars out of 5

Author: Ed Sum

I'm a freelance videographer and entertainment journalist (Absolute Underground Magazine, Two Hungry Blokes, and Otaku no Culture) with a wide range of interests. From archaeology to popular culture to paranormal studies, there's no stone unturned. Digging for the past and embracing "The Future" is my mantra.

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