In 2014, 20th Century Fox released the animated children’s film The Book of Life. It follows a young man named Manolo, who having sacrificed himself to save his one true love, attempts to return to the land of the living with the help of his ancestors. The heartfelt story and the animation, which is possibly the closest thing to storyboard art I’ve ever seen, and the influence of Guillmero Del Toro, make it worth the watch. Despite what people at the time may have had you believe, it has nothing to to with PIXAR’s 2017 film Coco. It shares minor plot elements like the Day of the Dead, a mission to return home and a vibrant colour palette, but this does not make one a knock-off of the other. To delve any further than that will require delving into the plot, so let’s just jump into it.
Coco follows a young boy named Miguel who dreams of being a musician, but whose family have banned all music from their lives. After a bizarre incident on the Day of the Dead featuring the guitar of Miguel’s idol Ernesto de la Cruz, he finds himself in the land of the dead and needing to receive the blessing of an ancestor to return home. The plot here has several fundamental differences from The Book of Life, starting with the setting. Whilst both films take place in a small Mexican town, Coco takes place in a town where music feels like it has practically been outlawed by the influence of Miguel’s grandmother. If anything, it reminds me of the legendary 1984 film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon. The second deviance concerns the death of our main characters, because, unlike Manolo, Miguel isn’t actually dead. Manolo made a deal with death which required him to die and so his attempted escape from the land of the dead is something he technically shouldn’t be attempting. Miguel on the other hand ends up in the land of the dead purely by accident, and can leave whenever he wants. His ancestors are more than willing to provide the blessing he needs to go home, but only if he gives up music, which is where the conflict arises. To leave on his own terms, Miguel runs away to find De la Cruz, who he believes to be his great grandfather. Whilst The Book of Life‘s plot is fuelled by love, Coco‘s plot is fuelled by selfishness. I feel like claiming one film to be just like the other prevents either film from thriving on its own. They are both worth watching, and thanks to the Fox/Disney merger, you can find both on Disney+.
A really interesting aspect of Coco is what it has to say about songwriting credits. Over the course of the plot, Miguel meets and befriends Hector, who claims to be friends with De la Cruz but as we reach the film’s climax, the truth presents itself. It transpires that Hector was De la Cruz’s musical partner in life, and that he wrote all of De la Cruz’s songs- including his biggest hit Remember Me, which Hector had actually written for his daughter. To make matters worse, it is revealed that De la Cruz poisoned Hector, because he was planning on returning home before they had managed to make it in the industry. I’m not aware of anything quite like this happening in real life, but the discussion surrounding songwriting credits dates back quite a while. It isn’t something that I’m even remotely qualified to dive into, but I find the use of this discussion in Coco to be really interesting. Ernesto de la Cruz became one of the world’s biggest stars, to the point where he is still left tributes by his adoring fans, whilst Hector who is responsible for his success, was murdered and forgotten. The film definitely comes down on Hector’s side, and therefore, the side of the songwriter. But songwriting credits aren’t just about legacy.
Songwriting credits are vastly important because it determines which people become popular, famous and perhaps most importantly wealthy. It is exceedingly ironic that this message is present in a film being distributed by the Walt Disney Company, whose first feature length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves made them millions, but had no voice actor credits. The opening credits to the film only feature the production staff, as was common practice at the time, but nobody that provided their voice had there name attached to anything, including the promotional material. The voice actress for Snow White was named Adriana Caselotti, and she passed away on January 18, 1997 at the age of 80, having never made as much money as she should have for such an important role. There are still no voice acting credits in any re-releases of Snow White either. Fast forward to today, and even PIXAR itself is guilty of overlooking people. Mama Coco is based on a real person (María de la Salud Ramírez Caballer) from a real town (Santa Fe de la Laguna) in Mexico, and whilst many people know this now, providing a small tourism boost to the town, she has never been properly acknowledged by PIXAR. As a result of her involvement and the team’s trip to see her, Coco is saturated with Mexican culture. The colours and the designs make this movie pop, and that is amplified by the stunning soundtrack, which has both English and Mexican dubs of its songs. To me, this feels like it is to PIXAR what The Emperor’s New Groove was to Disney, although Coco has proved to be more successful. Which hurts just a little bit.
It’s a common complaint these days that the film industry is all sequels, prequels and remakes, and for the span of a few years, PIXAR wasn’t immune to this ‘trend’. However Coco is slotted quite nicely in between all that, and is perhaps one of the most original films the company has produced in a while. I have to confess that I nearly forgot to review Coco. In my list of PIXAR releases, my eyes somehow glazed over the title, but I’m thankful that I noticed my mistake. It’s worthy of being noticed.
Until Next Time…