On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre was home to the Orquesta Folclórica Nacional de México. The orchestra put on an enthralling live-to-concert performance of the score of the award-winning Pixar film “Coco” as the film played on the screen for a young audience eager to revisit the crowd-pleasing story. With its spirited 20-person ensemble, the Orquesta Folclórica Nacional de Mexico's version of “Coco” was a lively celebration of the movie’s musical roots, likely as unforgettable for me as it was for the concert’s many young attendants.
Released in 2017, “Coco” tells the story of a young boy named Miguel, whose dream of becoming a famous musician puts him in conflict with the rest of his family. In his quest to prove himself, he winds up in the land of the dead and must obtain the blessing of his extended family in order to return to the land of the living.
Like many of the younger viewers at Wednesday’s showing, this was not the first time I had seen “Coco.” Back in 2018, I had watched the film from the comfort of my living room. At the time, the music hadn’t stood out next to the vivid animation and complex plot. Sure, the songs “Remember Me” and “Un Poco Loco” were stuck in my head in the days following, but if someone were to ask me what I liked most about the movie, its score would not be my first response.
Almost immediately, the showing on Wednesday changed my mind. Taking up the entire stage in front of the screen was the orchestra, which featured many of the typical instruments such as flutes and violins, as well as other percussion and wind instruments from Mexico’s pre-colonial past such as the huehuetl and ocarinas.
The orchestra’s performance began with a Mexican rendition of the iconic Disney theme as Cinderella’s castle flashed across the screen. Bright brass led the way while cheerful tambourines and strings filled out the rest of the sound, ushering the way for the movie’s opening scenes. Following a brief interlude of more somber woodwinds and strings, the orchestra once again brightened things up with the help of the entire ensemble, echoing the triumphant nature of the family success story as told by Miguel.
Throughout the rest of the movie, the orchestra’s ability to create a joyous atmosphere continued to be a strength, but the impact of having a live orchestra was perhaps at its most palpable in scenes dominated by negative emotions. The first time it felt like the movie’s stakes were being pushed was when Miguel realized he was no longer fully part of the living world. As he ran from the church and through the plaza, bumping into both the alive and the dead, thundering percussion, wailing strings, and groaning brass reverberated throughout the theater, quickening heartbeats in the audience and mirroring Miguel’s duress. The orchestra did not just describe what Miguel was feeling; rather, it made us feel those same emotions too.
Surely, I am not the only one whose emotions were deeply impacted by the orchestra. When the musicians stood to take their bows, they were met with a standing ovation from the audience, a couple of whom I had witnessed wiping away tears only minutes earlier. And from the many young children who were able to attend this showing came cheers and a mini rainbow light show from recently purchased light-up merch.
At times, the music did feel like slightly too much, especially when it began to obscure the dialogue, but while a handful of small details may have been lost, the orchestra was still able to translate triumphs and failures; reunions and losses; and hopes and despairs through carefully arranged music. In my opinion, understanding every little thing that happened was perhaps not as important as being able to feel every little thing that happened — and that was where the orchestra’s strength truly laid.
Melody Cui is a contributing writer for The Prospect from Milford, Connecticut. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.