For EngageWithSpanish.com’s inaugural post, I’ve decided to discuss my new favorite movie, Disney/Pixar’s Coco (2017). (In some future post, I will reveal my previous favorite movie – stay tuned to find out!) Yes, I know that this is a blog about Spanish-language content and Coco was released as an English-language title in most of the US. However, I have a couple of reasons for including it here. First of all, the Spanish version was released in Mexico several weeks ahead of the English version in the U.S., and the Spanish version played on U.S. screens in some markets. The cultural content of Coco is inextricably linked to Mexico and Spanish, and the characters code-switch very realistically, sprinkling Spanish words and expressions throughout the dialogue even in the English version. The Spanish version was also available to moviegoers in locations where it wasn’t being officially screened, through the TheaterEars app. (The second time I saw the film, I watched it with the Spanish soundtrack through TheaterEars.)
In this post I am going to discuss the Spanish-language version of Coco, which is available via Netflix as of this writing. In the future, Disney does plan to remove all of its content from Netflix and make it available via a streaming service of its own; I will try to update those details when the time comes. Meanwhile, though, Spanish is an option on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of Coco.
For all learners and lovers of Spanish, Coco is an absolutely beautiful tribute to the warmth, joy, vibrant color and overwhelming love of family that defines Mexico. In so many ways, with such lavish attention to detail, it captures the rich cultural tapestry of the mestizaje of indigenous and Spanish traditions and their connection to the present, popular culture, and the day-to-day lives of millions of Mexicans (as well as many Mexican-Americans). The filmmakers did their homework on this one, with multiple research trips to Mexico to gather material that contributed to hundreds of careful, true-to-life touches that make the film so compelling.
Coco lifts up Mexican culture as something to admire and emulate, in a way we haven’t seen nearly enough from Hollywood. It is also admirably specific in how the characters are fleshed out. The filmmakers move us beyond stereotypes and stock figures by providing abundant detail that lends depth to the story and characters. For example, Miguel and his family are not portrayed as impoverished farmworkers, or drug dealers, or undocumented immigrants. The Riveras are shoemakers. Moreover, they are portrayed as highly knowledgeable and skilled at their profession: in one scene, several of Miguel’s relatives are searching for him and they find his footprints. Experts at their craft, they readily identify the prints as being made by Rivera shoes, noting Miguel’s size and tendency to pronation.
Alongside their specificity, the characters also manage to be universal and highly relatable. The film depicts family relationships that resonate with viewers from every country and cultural background, such as the cousin who teases Miguel that “you have to have talent to be in a talent show” and the strong-willed grandmother who lovingly presses him to eat more of her tamales. Anyone who has ever met a toddler will chuckle when Miguel’s twin cousins pour out the entire basket of flower petals while “helping” to make a path for the spirits of the ancestors. And viewers everywhere will recognize Dante as the incarnation of the silly, playful, but also loving and helpful canine companion found around the world.
Another appealing aspect of Coco’s representation of Mexico and Mexican characters is its portrayal of their life and afterlife without any reference to their northern neighbor. Coco gently invites US audiences to move beyond the aforementioned fundamentally US-centric stereotypes and understand Mexican culture as its own complete and multidimensional entity. None of the characters in Coco ever mention or even appear to think about the US; nobody talks about wanting to emigrate, or about relatives who have already done so. At a time when so much political discourse in the US pushes a narrative of constant, relentless pressure on the border, it is a healthy corrective to see such a positive representation of Mexican identity from another perspective.
And of course, the music of Coco is absolutely transcendent, as befits a film in which music is such a central part of the plot. The soundtrack is full of exuberant, joyous themes and harmonies that draw from the rich musical traditions of Mexico and blend lyrics from both languages. An excellent example of this is “The World Es Mi Familia”, a theme which perfectly captures exactly what we as language educators most want to impart to our students: the idea that all of us on this planet are connected and that we need to learn to unite through language, and not allow ourselves to be divided by it.
Many students looking to improve their Spanish proficiency will have already seen Coco in English and will be familiar with the plot and content. This creates ideal conditions for a second viewing in Spanish, as well as facilitating classroom use. Learners will be able to concentrate more on the details of language forms and structures because they will have a much easier time processing it for meaning. If any readers of this blog haven’t yet seen Coco in English and want to give it a try in Spanish the first time they see it, I heartily encourage them to do so. It is an absolutely wonderful film in both languages! I do think that for learners there is a lot of benefit to be gained from re-watching a movie in order to focus on the formal properties of language within a familiar context. I also think there are a variety of benefits to be gained from watching it in different configurations: Spanish soundtrack plus English subtitles, Spanish soundtrack alone, and Spanish soundtrack with Spanish subtitles.
For learners viewing Coco on their own:
From its opening frames, Coco is full of visual inside jokes and cultural references, sort of like Easter eggs (but maybe we should call them panes de muertos in this case!), that viewers familiar with Mexican culture will recognize. The more you learn about Mexico, the more things you will notice. For instance, when the Disney logo appears before the film, accompanied by “When You Wish Upon A Star”, it has been rearranged for mariachi band, with syncopated rhythms and trumpets in harmony. The first scene of the movie establishes the backstory of the Rivera family through papel picado, a traditional decorative art form. When it is revealed that Miguel is telling this story to a bored mariachi getting his shoes shined in the plaza, the musician begins noodling on his guitar, idly strumming the opening chords of “La Llorona”, a famous Mexican folk song that will become a key plot point later in the film. Much later, we see Miguel’s great-grandmother Mamá Coco reach into the drawer of her bedside table and pull out a book where she keeps important papers. The book has an embossed leather cover with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most important religious symbols of Mexico. Readers can challenge themselves to spot details like these, that they may have heard of or learned about in a Spanish class.
Another example of this film’s attention to detail, one that I (as a musician) greatly appreciate, is that the musicians’ playing is depicted with great accuracy (except that they don’t seem to need to tune before they play). Any time a character plays a guitar, the chords, strumming and fingerpicking that we see actually do align with the notes we hear. As with so many of the other small details, by making the effort to get it right, the filmmakers help to ensure that some of the core groups in their audience (namely, musicians and people familiar with Mexican culture) can be drawn into the story of Coco rather than being distracted by inaccuracies.
The filmmakers also do a wonderful job of using Coco’s musical numbers to build emotional moments between the characters. The chief example of this is, of course, the lilting ballad “Remember Me” that penetrates the obscuring depths of Alzheimer’s to help Mamá Coco remember her father. Current research indicates that beloved melodies from earlier life stages truly can facilitate Alzheimer and dementia patients’ access to memories that are otherwise unavailable to them. (For a fascinating exploration of this phenomenon, check out Indre Viskontas’ Cadence podcast, particularly Episode 8 of season 2.) Other richly meaningful musical moments in the film include the playful duet “Un poco loco” that Miguel and Héctor perform at the talent show, bonding them before they are aware of their family connection; as well as the aforementioned folk song “La Llorona” as sung by Mamá Imelda. Her haunting rendition of it is all the more poignant when the viewer is aware of the legend behind the music: La Llorona was a woman driven to commit an act of tragic violence out of despair at being abandoned by the man she loved. Mamá Imelda’s decision to banish music from the lives of the next five generations of the Rivera family because she believes that it stole away her husband echoes back to that legend.
Of all the music in the film, however, the one that always makes my heart swell with emotion (even more than “Remember Me”) is the song that plays over the final minutes of the film, “Proud Corazón”. We see Héctor successfully cross the bridge to the land of the living for the first time (in a deliberate callback to earlier border-crossing imagery in which he sank, tried to swim, and was finally pulled out of the cempasúchil petals by the authorities), joined by Imelda, Coco, and the other deceased Riveras. We then see the entire family celebrating together in the patio of the Riveras’ house. Here we have another visual callback: I am sure that it is no accident that the final moments of the movie show Miguel standing on a covered well or cistern, then lifted up by members of his family. The covered well is a callback to the scene in which Ernesto de la Cruz abandoned Miguel in a cenote instead of granting his request. The cenote, a gaping sinkhole, symbolizes the wounds of rejection and Miguel’s despair and abandonment in that moment – but it also becomes the place where he learns the truth about his great-grandfather, and where he is rescued by the family he had tried to escape. In the final image of the film, that wound has been healed: the hole has been closed up and Miguel is literally supported on the shoulders of his family while he sings about his love for them.
For learners of Spanish who have previously viewed Coco in English, you will doubtless have noticed the large number of Spanish vocabulary words seamlessly integrated into the dialogue in the very realistic depiction of how code-switching takes place among bilinguals. In watching the Spanish version, you might also notice a number of English words that have been borrowed into Spanish (particularly items such as “show” and “backstage” in the performance-related scenes). You might also find it interesting to compare the English and Spanish versions of “Un poco loco” and “Juanita”, to see how the lyrics achieve the word play and rhyming in each language:
Un poco loco in SpanishUn poco loco in EnglishJuanita in SpanishJuanita in EnglishFor language educators:Coco is full of teachable moments that can be used productively in the Spanish classroom. It is appropriate for a wide range of age groups and could be used successfully in nearly any setting. Some instructors of very young children might hesitate to use a film that deals with the topic of death and prominently features animated skeletons, but their portrayal in Coco is friendly, approachable, light-hearted and humorous, and ultimately very appealing to a wide cross-section of age groups.
One caveat: I would not advocate simply screening Coco (or almost any feature film) uninterrupted in class. If I want students to view an entire movie for class, I would make the viewing a homework assignment and use class time for activities related to the film. Even though a film like Coco is potentially an excellent source of comprehensible input, I would still reserve class time for activities and discussion related to the content, rather than just viewing the film. For one thing, class time is limited and valuable; contexts vary, but I generally only have my students for 150 minutes per week. There are always more activities that I want to do than there is time to fit them in, so I would be unwilling to devote 105 of those minutes to viewing alone. Furthermore, I suspect that when learners only have to watch a movie during an entire class, it can tempt them to watch passively without attending to or retaining what I want them to actively process. If they watch at home, knowing that the material will be discussed in the next class, I think there is a better chance of them watching actively and with greater engagement.
During class time, I use stills and brief excerpts (maybe 30 seconds to a minute) from the film as a springboard to activities or discussion. If I screen a slightly longer excerpt (i.e. a 2-5 minute scene), I will pause frequently and repeat segments to highlight linguistic details and discuss how they contribute to the meaning of what is being said, drawing on the context provided by the film.
For instance, the following are a series of “teachable moments” that I might choose to highlight with students:
The “papel picado” opening sequence:
The dialogue in this portion exposes learners to family vocabulary such as “tatarabuela” and “bisabuela”, which is more sophisticated than what most introductory textbooks include in their “familias” section, but which is contextually very important for the story of this film.
The phrase “antes de que yo naciera” is used twice in the opening animation sequence. I would highlight this expression for several reasons: 1) It is potentially very useful for a follow-up classroom activity asking learners to talk about stories from their own families’ histories before they were born; 2) it uses the imperfect subjunctive, a challenging form for many learners; 3) it features the verb nacer, which poses challenges to L1 English speakers because it translates as a passive verb, “was born”, but in Spanish it is an active verb. Learners tend to default to *fui nacido or similarly inaccurate structures when they attempt to produce these utterances on their own, and some of them may benefit from having their attention drawn to this feature of the input.
When Miguel is in the Plaza Santa Cecilia trying to borrow a guitar for the talent show, I would encourage learners to pay attention to who Miguel addresses as “tú” and who receives “usted”. This feature is easy for many L1 English learners of Spanish to miss: it has relatively low communicative value (since both forms default to “you”) and native English speakers are initially not very sensitive to the sociocultural overtones of tú vs. usted.
The Spanish lyrics of “Recuérdame” are full of good examples of tú-form commands, both affirmative and negative.
The climactic backstage scene at the Sunrise Spectacular, right before they catch Ernesto on camera threatening Miguel, is also full of tú-form commands.
In the scene where Chicharrón dies, there are several nice examples of the subjunctive for non-existent entities: “No hay nadie con vida que pueda contar las historias de Chich.”
When Mamá Imelda is explaining to Miguel the history of how she stopped allowing music in the family, she says “Adoraba la música … pero cuando nació Coco encontré algo nuevo en mi vida con más importancia que la música.” This is a nice example of a description of an existing state of affairs (expressed in the imperfect), punctuated by changes (expressed in the preterite).
When Héctor and Imelda first see each other (at the end of the cenote scene), Héctor grins nervously and tells her, “Qué linda estás.” This use of estar instead of ser with descriptions of appearance is a classic source of confusion for learners of Spanish, who struggle to grasp that ser is characterized by intrinsic (rather than “permanent”) qualities and estar describes circumstantial (rather than “temporary”) qualities. Without guidance, some learners will misinterpret “Qué linda estás” and similar utterances as a veiled insult rather than the genuine (though admittedly hesitant) compliment that it is. It may be helpful for instructors to pause here and remind viewers that this is the first time Héctor and Imelda have seen each other since he left home, when they were both alive and probably in their early to mid-twenties. Thus, Imelda genuinely does look different compared to how Héctor remembers her, hence his use of estar.
Once students are familiar with all the characters, Coco offers excellent opportunities to discuss family vocabulary, including more extended and multi-generational relationships than most introductory textbooks include.
In closing, I would like to share with you a couple of links to other reviews and resources for Coco:
Manuel Betancourt, “Why the Spanish Dub of Pixar’s Coco Is Even Better Than the Original”
Instructional resources for Coco from Mis Clases Locas
Have you engaged with Coco? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!
Title: CocoDirectors: Lee Unkrich & Adrian MolinaGenre: Animation, Adventure, ComedyDuration: 1h 45minCountry: United StatesLanguage: English, SpanishPublication Date: 2017Company: Disney/Pixar