Movie Mixtape: 6 Movies to Watch After You See ‘Coco’
(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what’s in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: Coco.)
You probably noticed on store shelves this Autumn that Dia de los Muertos (or Dia de Muertos if you want to be exact) is having a cultural moment beyond Mexico, so it’s my sincere hope that Pixar’s Coco will help the uninitiated gain an appreciation of the holiday focused on dead family members and ancestors. The Day of the Dead is a vibrant celebration of remembrance and life.
The film, written by Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich and co-directed by Molina and Lee Unkrich, follows 12-year-old aspiring guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a quest through the afterlife.
/Film’s Josh Spiegel called it one of the most beautiful Pixar movies yet, so let’s see what other beautiful adventure films we can find to pair with it.
The Book of Life (2014)
Jorge R. Gutierrez’s outstanding adventure through the Land of the Remembered was a triumph of animation, goofiness, and heart. Manolo Sànchez (Diego Luna) wants to be a musician but feels pressure from his father to go into the family bullfighting business. He and military hero Joaquin Mondragon (Channing Tatum) both want to win the heart of their friend since childhood, Maria Posado (Zoe Saldana), and the mythical rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten have a bet riding on who will succeed.
It’s criminally underseen, and when Pixar announced they were going forward with Coco, there was an outcry from many fans who felt it would be a copy of The Book of Life done by a massive, American corporate entity co-opting culture without understanding it. It didn’t help that Disney tried to copyright the phrase “Day of the Dead,” which led to cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz drawing the satirical “Muerto Mouse” before being hired by Pixar as a consultant. A lot of those fears have been quelled, but there were inevitably going to be thematic and plot-level similarities when drawing inspiration from the music and art of Mexico.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
An artifact for seeing how Disney has evolved in its treatment of Mexican culture, this WWII-era Donald Duck travelogue is more bonkers than you remember. It opens when Donald gets the gift of a projector and cartoons from the friends he met in Saludos Amigos — the first in a series of movies meant to create kinship between the United States and South American countries who had close political ties to Nazi Germany. In essence, the State Department had hired Mickey Mouse.
Donald watches the cartoons, one of his presents explodes to reveal cigar-chomping, Brazilian parrot José Carioca in a pop-up book, and the manic ride gets wacky. Mexico is represented by Panchito Pistoles (should it be “Pistolas”?), an energetic rooster who joins Donald and José as they travel through live-action footage of songs and beach scenes. The movie is largely insane (even for a cartoon) and features Donald getting noticeably aroused by all the women he encounters (including the one’s who morph into being from dancing cacti).
Unicorn vs Narwhal (2006)
There’s no audio track on writer/director Adrian Molina’s CalArts project, but it’s still worth watching for its imagination and vivid portrayal of clashing, fantasy armies in the clouds. The short portrays a man and woman musing on the clouds and an epic battle between two mythical beings.
It’s easy to see why Pixar hired him right out of college. Coco is his first feature credit as screenwriter and co-director.
The Halloween Tree (1993)
Based on Ray Bradbury’s story, this kid’s adventure features a soul-stealer named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who is disappointed when a group of children don’t know the history and symbolism of their Halloween costumes. Also, he’s trying to take their friend Pip’s ghost, so it’s a lot like The Magic School Bus if Ms. Frizzle was after the children’s souls.
They go to ancient Egypt for the mummy, the Dark Ages for the witch, and finally to Mexico for a Dia de Muertos celebration to explain the significance of skeletons. It’s a fun, low calorie cartoon, but you get Bradbury’s narration and voice work from Leonard Nimoy to seal the deal.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro is undoubtedly the most celebrated Mexican fantasy filmmaker currently working, as well as a major champion for Mexican cinema. Granted, so many Mexican filmmakers are masters of drama that it’s hard suggest their work as a double-feature for a family-friendly Pixar flick. “Hey, kids! If you loved Coco, check out Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante films next!”
Del Toro’s second film set during the Spanish Civil War is a peerless dark fairy tale that filled our nightmares with new monsters, including the Pale Man, who could be cousins with Coco, the Hispanic folk lore bogeyman who eats children who misbehave.
Spirited Away (2001)
Another story of a child crossing over into a land of spirits to learn lessons and protect her family, Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is one of the best movies made this century. Or of all time.
Since Pixar is the Studio Ghibli of the United States, watching this after Coco is a fascinating comparison and contrast of styles and substance. Plus, chances are you’ve got it on your shelf already.
The movies here should give us an eye toward how little Mexican culture has been explored in American cinema, particularly animation.
Some of these films should send you on an adventure through a world beyond our own while others can show us how artists more than a half-century ago depicted Mexican and South American culture for American audiences. At least one will remind you not to take any food off the Pale Man’s table.
Which movies do you plan on watching after you see Coco?
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