Just in time for the holidays, Pixar presents a warm and colorful celebration of family with Coco. Inspired by the Mexican traditions of Día de Muertos, this vibrant adventure follows young, aspiring musician Miguel on a life-changing journey through the Land of the Dead.
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) comes from a longline of shoemakers, but he believes music is in his blood. Desperate to seize his moment on this day reserved for remembering dead relatives, he sneaks into a graveyard and snatches a snazzy guitar from a tomb. This trespass whisks him into the realm of the dead. There, he has an unexpected reunion with his ancestors, who warn he must rejoin the living before sunrise makes his stay amongst them permanent. Though his life is on the line, Miguel refuses his great great grandmother’s condition that he never play music again. Then he escapes to teams up with a mangy mutt and a ramshackle stranger (Gael García Bernal) to find his long-lost great great grandfather, a guitar player the boy believes will be his salvation. Along the way, Miguel comes across gaggles of giggling skeletons, a beautiful but intimidating alebrije (animal guide), and iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), dead but still creating very personal and deeply dark art. (Her abrupt and suitably strange appearance is an undeniable highlight.)
The entire film is centered around the potential death of its child hero, and its cast is mainly stocked with the dead, albeit in playful calavera stylings. Yet there’s an easy jubilance to Coco. Miguel is a rambunctious hero, whose enthusiasm is sure to endear him to kids, while Pixar’s animators use their acclaimed skills to create a Land of the Dead alive with color, verve and music. As a quirky con man, Bernal’s Hector brings a roguish charm and belly laughs, but it’s the happy-go-lucky Dante, a street dog aptly described as looking like “a sausage someone dropped on a barber shop floor,” that is the film’s silly and sensational scene-stealer. With a rubbery pink tongue that flips to wrap around his muzzle, and a jangling amble that makes him at once pathetic and adorable, this gusto-fueled pup is sure to steal hearts. And then, Miguel’s story will threaten to break them.
Unraveling a family mystery, Miguel’s quest touches on tough family matters like resentment, abandonment, and regret. But for such sophisticated subject matter, the film keeps things pretty juvenile. Just as Spanish words (ofrendas, alebrije) are given a concise but clear explanation, so too are the motivations of Miguel’s family, though through ardent monologues and stark flashbacks. Kids might not get the finer points of the family tragedy that led to the Rivera’s maniacal hatred of music, but they’ll understand enough to follow along and root for the scrappy kid who is literally risking his skin to sing. Adults might be won over by Coco‘s sentimentality and tear-tugging song, “Remember Me.” But the storytelling here is hardly nuanced, and so becomes frustratingly predictable. I mean, there’s foreshadowing, and then there’s the blatant close-up of a pair of shot glasses out of nowhere that forces one to wonder, “What was that about?”
While Pixar’s ad campaign is understandably playing up the neon spectacle of its Día de Muertos-themed fantasy world, Coco is at its best in quiet moments in Miguel’s quaint Mexican village, like when he talks to his beloved great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). Her hair soft wisps of white and faint grey bound into healthy braids, her skin a maze of wrinkles and laugh lines, her knuckles knotted, her chin speckled with nearly invisible hairs, this titular character is one of the most visually compelling the animation studio has ever offered. When Miguel speaks to her, the film’s rollicking pace halts, giving a chance to breathe along with a heady poignance. Here, in the quiet of Mamá Coco’s humble room, comes the moment that breaks even the hardest-hearted critic. And a song once bombastic plays as something more intimate and far more important.
Admittedly, I was not instantly awed by Pixar’s Coco as I have been by some of their past works. (Ratatouille, all day!) But it’s impossible not to admire the careful details in design and animation that are positively packed into every frame of Coco. On top of that, a dynamic voice cast brings a spirited buoyancy, while its music brings a blend of joy and hurt, both brilliantly realized. Despite some snags in storytelling, Coco is a vivid tale of life and death and afterlife.
Coco opens November 22nd.