Coco and The Book of Life: A Critique
It's been a long time since I've bothered writing out my opinions about books and movies. I stopped doing it for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I always felt stifled by the idea of spoiling people, and I concluded that no one really wanted to know what a self-obsessed nerd in his late teens thought about the media he consumed so regularly. As such, I typically abstain from writing what essentially amounts to reviews, unless there's a heavy cultural meaning or something really resonates with me. This one falls into the former.
At the behest of my family, namely my mother, I got around to watching Pixar's Coco the other day. I'll be frank. I did not want to watch this movie. The original preview of this film and its similarity to The Book of Life left a bad taste in my mouth. I loved the latter and saw this as a corporate machine swiping a moderately successful idea and pouring a bigger budget into it to stomp all over the little guy. I saw it as Disney proving that the bigger wallet wins by commercializing my heritage (especially after trying to trademark Dia De Los Muertos)...yeah, I had a dozen reasons to avoid watching Coco and just as many preconceived notions about its quality, but it's impossible to say no to my mother so here we are.
So let's tackle the obvious similarities between both films before we dive into their differences. SPOILERS!
- The same holiday: obvious similarity is obvious.
- "M" named protagonist who wants to be a musician. (Manolo/Miguel)
- The family of said protagonist is not supportive of his music. (family of bull fighters/family of cobblers)
- Through supernatural means, our hero is transported to the proverbial underworld and must find a way to return home. (Xibalba tricks Manolo/ Miguel is cursed for breaking a custom)
- With the help of his ancestors and through perseverance, our hero makes it back to the realm of the living in time to prevent a small tragedy. (Manolo saves his village from invaders/ Miguel prevents Hector from being forgotten)
- The weight of family obligations (both characters deal with being the odd one out)
- The weight/importance of cultural norms/customs (Manolo can't bring himself to finish a bull in a match, Miguel doesn't care about honoring his ancestors)
- The weight of heritage/importance of remembering our ancestors (both films make it clear that being forgotten sucks)
- The healing power of music. (Manolo uses the power of his song to appease the physical manifestation of all angry bulls his ancestors have killed and convince his family that music isn't a bad thing, Miguel uses his song to bring back the light in his great grandmother Coco's eyes and prevents a soul from dying the final death)
- Legacy (at the heart of both films is the idea that the past is important because of how it shapes the future. both characters come from a long line of people in the same profession, choosing music breaks that line)
Oof! Kind of a lot in common. Enough to make you wonder just how much was actually "borrowed" during production even. But this is one of the better examples of premise vs execution. Obviously, there's a similar premise in both films, but their executions could not be more different. It's like watching an episode of Chopped. Same ingredients, completely different dishes by the end of it all. This is largely due to the difference in the type of story being told.
The Book of Life is a myth framed as a fairy tale. It takes its cues from classical story structure. Otherworldly beings exert their influence on the mortal realm, and what comes next is an action adventure with a strong romantic subplot. The protagonist's life is thrown into disarray by the apparent death of his love interest (caused by trickster like forces), he literally crosses the threshold and enters the underworld to reunite with her, only to discover that he's been had and begins a road of trials to make it back to his beloved. The heroes of these stories don't evolve or change or grow but overcome all obstacles by applying what they've learned up until now-typically truths relevant to the predominant worldview of the culture telling the story. In this case, the "truth" which saves Manolo is to "always play from his heart" aka be yourself. We, as the audience, know that his music is the right path because of how it affects the world around him. Magic quite literally happens when he plays his music. I'm talking Pied Piper kind of stuff here.
Why does this mean that music is his truth, you ask? Well, in classic myths, especially those of the meso-american variety, the truth is so powerful that reality warps itself to accommodate it. We see this in the Popol-Vuh (the Mayan creation myth) when the mother of the hero twins is told by her mother in law that if she is truly carrying her grandchildren then she should be able to pluck corn from the barren fields. Now, because the maiden is, in fact, carrying the great mother's descendants, she fills her basket with corn miraculously plucked from a single stalk. There are other stories amongst native cultures that feature this kind of test. 'If you're really my relative then you should be able to do (insert impossible task here)'
So what's this mean for The Book of Life? It means that the tension of the story doesn't come from whether or not Manolo will succeed but from how he struggles to apply what he knows to be his truth- and not just how he struggles, but why. The weight of another social value, familial obligations, holds him back. Again, this is classic drama; "when what I want, destroys what you want."- as my old screenplay teacher would say. Whether or not the hero accepts or rejects the tenants of his family is irrelevant, as he always makes the right choice in the end and what constitutes the right choice varies. In this case, Manolo succeeds in "being himself" in front of his family and is granted passage back to the realm of the living to save his village and be reunited with his beloved, Maria. Achievement unlocked: Fairytale Ending.
Coco, is a different beast though. While its predecessor followed the format of the hero's journey, this thing is a bildungsroman. A coming of age story. The key difference is that the plot of the latter is specifically focused on the transition between one stage of life and another.
Miguel is on the cusp of adolescence when we meet him, and like most twelve years olds, he has a serious amount of resentment towards his family's traditions. Unlike Manolo, who carries the guilt of not being able to successfully carry on his family's legacy, Miguel doesn't want to enter the family business. He's dreading it. He sees it as a dull obstacle in the way of his real passion; music. To make matters worse, his passion is expressly forbidden by his family because his great great grandfather (a musician) walked out on his family to pursue his dream of playing for the world. His family's history revolves around the construction/sale of shoes and the abject hatred of the one thing he loves most. It's no surprise then, that he's so ardently against anything having to do with his family's history. He doesn't even bother sitting through his grandmother's stories about his deceased relatives and resorts to venting about his troubles to strangers.
Thus, Miguel's story begins, as many of these types of stories do, with an act of disobedience. Through the process of trying to secretly compete in a talent show, Miguel outs himself as a musician to his family. Tempers flare, and after his grandmother destroys his guitar, Miguel rejects his family, their legacy, and their customs. Day of the Dead doesn't mean anything to him, neither does the notion of honoring your ancestors, all that matters is his passion for music.
Already, the stories are different. Where Manolo struggles to balance his family's expectations with his own desires. Miguel rejects his family's values outright. This isn't about a noble heart persevering but an arrogant one learning his place in the world, and that what he thinks he knows does not make up for real experience and passed down knowledge. So, not understanding that Day of the Dead is a time to make offerings to those who have died, and the implications of taking from them instead, Miguel borrows his late great- great- grandfather's guitar to compete in the talent show and is subsequently cursed into the realm of the dead.
It's here that Miguel meets his ancestors, and discovers that the only way to get back to the realm of the living is to be given the blessing of a family member. The catch is that his ancestors will only give him their blessing on the condition that he never play music again. Unwilling to accept those conditions, and again rejecting the tenants of his family, Miguel runs away in search of Ernesto De LaCruz, his great-great-grandfather, so he can receive his blessing instead.
It's on this journey that Miguel meets Hector, a desperate soul who just wants to make it to the realm of the living one last time, and learns not just the significance of the holiday, but the fate of souls who are forgotten. Through various interactions with the dead, and his ancestors, he begins to grasp the tragedy unfolding around him. As much as he loves music, he is torn by the fact that his family will never support him and threatened to forget him. His only hope lies in his great-great-grandfather.
Unfortunately, his great-grandfather doesn't turn out to be what Miguel had hoped. Though their interaction is predominantly positive, they suffer a falling out and De LaCruz is revealed to be the villain of the story.
De LaCruz has his bodyguards throw Miguel into a cenote, as a means of imprisoning him. This is a beautiful bit of symbolism, as cenotes were considered portals into the underworld by the Maya. As such, Miguel undergoes a metaphorical death and rebirth as he climbs out of the water and calls out for help. It is only after this baptism of sorts that Miguel begins to learn and truly understand the truth of his heritage and the importance of family. At length, and with the aid of his ancestors, Miguel is sent home, just in time to avert a family tragedy. In so doing, he mends the rift in his family and succeeds in embracing his passion for music and accepting his role as a Rivera. A year passes and we see Miguel, now thirteen, teaching his infant sister about the importance of Dia De Los Muertos and openly playing music with his family, in full mariachi attire. Thus, his initiation into this society is complete.
So what does it all mean?
Well...that the two films are incredibly different, even if they touch on many of the same themes and obviously draw influence from the same sources. I would go as far as saying it's not unlike comparing Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Similar ideas, but not at all the same.
Should you watch either one?
Yes- but for different reasons. Watch the Book of Life if you want something more light-hearted, or to experience the story of a good man remaining steadfast and overcoming all obstacles to get back to the woman he loves. (Also, Ice Cube is awesome in it) Watch Coco if you want something with more emotional weight and resonance or if you want to experience the story of a headstrong kid learning what it means to be family.( Also, you will cry.)
Watch them both if you want to enjoy some good storytelling and solid voice acting with an excellent soundtrack and gorgeous visuals. I will say the soundtrack is better in Spanish for both films as the English lyrics often fail to match the rhythm of the music though.
Hope that covers everything, go tell your family you love them.