Coco’s Debt to Latin American Literature

Pixar’s Latest, the Lee Unkrich helmed Coco, is another triumph of emotionally driven storytelling. After Inside Out’s exploration of the mind, it appeared that the production house had reached the limits of possibilities in terms of personifying abstract concepts for children. But here they have taken their riskiest move yet by telling a story about death and generational family trauma.

Much of what makes the film feel so specific and personal is its Mexican setting. Not just in the obvious Dio de Los Muertos setting, but in the rich heritage of Mexican and Latin American literature that clearly informs Coco’s approach. I’m no scholar of the field but even in my limited reading, the links are clear. The clearest antecedent is Pedro Paramo, Juan Rolfo’s classic Mexican novel about a man who travels to his hometown only to discover that it is inhabited entirely by ghosts. Trapped in the land of the dead amongst his long deceased family members, he, like Miguel of Coco, discovers a metaphysical connection between the dead and the living.

The visual style of the town recalls Love & Rockets, the heartfelt and long-running literary comic strip by the Hernandez brothers. While many of its issues resemble a contemporary soap, in its Palomar stories the comic depicts the sprawling history of a fictional Mexican town. Like Santa Cecilia in Coco, Palomar has wide streets and a minimal design without too many props. They share a fondness for American imports like VHS and for pop culture artifacts like a forgotten vinyl. This musicality must remind of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by the American born Oscar Hijuelos, about the relationship between two Cuban musician-brothers. It is difficult not to see this book reflected back in the relationship between Hector and Ernesto. The song ‘Remember Me’, which repeats throughout the film and takes on a new meaning each time it is played, has the same thematic weight as Mambo Kings’ ‘Beautiful Maria of My Soul,’ the song that Nestor can never quite get right.

Unlike the American family saga, Latin American literature seems less unbound by time. We see this in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, which employs Sternian digression to give a holistic view of his central family. The first ten minutes of Coco have this same quality. One almost expects the film to consist of nothing but disconnected scenes from Santa Cecilia. This flowing structure speaks to the difference in cultural assumptions surrounding mortality. From Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Indeed, you may even see something of the Borges labyrinth in the land of the dead. It is a collection of huts and buildings piled atop one another, connected by deco bridges. Or it might remind you of the underrated 00s video game Voodoo Vince. The psychedelic colours will bring edge-lords and DMT fanatics into the space of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, itself a trip into the afterlife. Rather, it is the Frida Kahlo cameo that speaks to the film’s appreciation of its art-historical lineage, although the skeletons crawling out of the hand was closer to Un Chien Andalou than any of Kahlo’s work that I have come across. (Buñuel’s great Los Olvidados also depicts the streets of Mexico with great vivacity, but an unblinking sense for the horror of childhood that Pixar haven’t yet approached) This walk-on part for a renowned figure is commonplace in Latin American fiction, from the dense lists of cultural references in Roberto Bolaño to the political power structures of Mario Vargas Llosa. Magical realism allows for the strange feeling upon the intrusion of celebrity into everyday life. Pixar’s matter of fact treatment of the magical, of toys rising to life and houses lifted into the air by a thousand balloons, probably wouldn’t exist in the same way without the earlier movement’s strides to enliven its audience to the poetic supernatural of the everyday.

But while these comparisons can be made, most importantly Coco is a film for children that expertly communicates the feeling of loss when someone passes as well as providing hope and comfort that they can find peace on the other side. It articulates feelings of family duty and the lineage of time that are as sophisticated as anything you might come across in Marquez. A perfectly executed twist that made me realise a key idea linking almost all of the Pixar villains (Spoiler: Don’t meet your heroes). It’s fairly well telegraphed but being able to spot it coming just makes it more effective, all the more inevitable. With Coco, Pixar aren’t just expanding their representation for its own sake, but pulling strands of art together to give a fuller sense of what their cinema can be.