After spinning its wheels with Cars 3, Pixar is back in top form with Coco, a delightful and moving mix of fantasy and family concerns. Like last year’s Disney triumph Moana, it derives its inspiration from a full immersion in a specific culture—that of Mexico and its Día de los Muertos celebration.
As opposed to Moana’s bolder hues, Coco employs a warmer color scheme keyed to the glowing orange flower petals that affect the transition between the lands of the living and the dead. That’s the journey taken by Miguel Rivera (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of a multigenerational Mexican brood who’s expected to carry on their longstanding vocation of making shoes. He, however, is obsessed with music and has taught himself to play the guitar in emulation of his hero, the legendary singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt)—and in defiance of a family ban on music that has existed ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and little daughter to follow his performing dreams. (Coco is that girl grown up, a wizened old woman who figures into a couple of the film’s most touching moments.)
Miguel soon discovers evidence of what the audience already suspects: That Ernesto was the very man whose departure led the Riveras to cast music out of their lives. The boy becomes further inspired to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps, but has no idea how closely he’ll do just that. On Día de los Muertos, when the spirits of the deceased cross over to observe their living descendants (who leave offerings for them on shrines called ofrendas), circumstances lead Miguel to cross over to the Land of the Dead. It’s a beautifully rendered realm, populated by living skeletons of all shapes, sizes and attitudes—one where, of course, Miguel doesn’t belong. It’s one of his strengths as a protagonist that the story’s point is not Miguel’s search for a way out—he’s offered one quickly—but that he rejects it in order to pursue his goal. The spirit of Ernesto himself dwells somewhere in this lavish underworld, and Miguel is anxious to receive his idol’s blessing in the absence of his family’s approval.
While remaining reverent to the folklore surrounding Día de los Muertos, director Lee Unkrich, co-director/screenwriter Adrian Molina and co-scripter Matthew Aldrich have irreverent fun with the details, from the TSA-esque bureaucracy involved in traveling outside the Land of the Dead to assorted anatomical slapstick in which the sentient skeletons’ bones and eyes prove detachable. As always where Pixar is concerned, the animation is absolutely resplendent, rich with detail and perfectly conveying the personalities of Coco’s wide and varied cast of characters. The environments of the living and deceased are given distinctive visual schemes, bound together by the use throughout of Día de los Muertos imagery, which provides the film a singular (Fox and Guillermo del Toro’s recent The Book of Life notwithstanding) and consistently engaging style.
However, Pixar at its best (which is often) is about more than gorgeous images, and there’s a deep core of feeling to Miguel’s odyssey, which puts his ambition to the test and himself at odds with enforced tradition. The pull between the creative muse and family bonds is at the heart of Coco, which gives them equal, meaningful weight as Miguel struggles to reconcile them. In his quest to reach Ernesto, Miguel is joined by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a down-and-out skeleton who has his own reasons for wanting to meet up with the singer (whose great celebrity has continued in the underworld). Their growing friendship as they work together toward separate goals is reminiscent of the protagonists in Wreck-It Ralph—and like that film, Coco offers the substantial pleasure of taking you to a point where you’re sure the story is on the verge of wrapping up one way, then throws a curveball that sends it into a new and unexpected direction. In this case, the revelation propels the story into richer—and darker—emotional territory and sets the stage for a truly affecting resolution.
While keeping the focus on Miguel, Coco doesn’t neglect his family members—living and deceased—who receive meaningful screen time in subplots that are properly fleshed out (even if some of they themselves are not). And while there’s plenty of humor and razzle-dazzle, the filmmakers take numerous opportunities to slow down for quieter, more reflective moments that enrich the overall narrative. The music-driven storyline is complemented by a fine assortment of songs by Frozen’s Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez, Germaine Franco and Molina, highlighted by “Remember Me,” which recurs through the movie to ever-more-poignant effect. Its final rendition seals Coco’s stirring expression of the power music can have over the human soul.