Pixar seems to have the magic capable of making children smile and adults weep. And with Coco, they add to that a masterful, universal story about family filled with music and visuals to delight the senses.
And while it is universal, it is also very specifically Mexican, while also never feeling false or like it appropriates their culture. Given our current political climate in the United States where Mexicans are denigrated as “bad hombres,” “drug dealers” and “rapists” (and that’s just by the president), this presents a true representation of a culture where family and remembering your legacy is key. It also ends a long and painful history where Disney has really failed in representing Latinos and Latinx culture.
Our story centers around Miguel, a young boy who is obsessed with music despite it being banned from his family for generations. His nonagenarian great-grandmother Coco was abandoned as a child by a musician father who went off to seek his fortune. Left without a patriarch, the family’s matriarchy learned to make shoes, a trade which is their family’s legacy and heritage.
On the Day of the Dead, they place all of the photos of their extended and departed family on the ofrenda to remember them, including a photo of Coco as a child with the face of her musician father torn out. Miguel comes to believe that this missing great-great-grandfather might in fact be one of Mexico’s greatest singers of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), so he breaks into de la Cruz’s memorial at the graveyard to borrow his guitar to play in a talent competition.
Because of the weakening of the barriers between worlds on Dia de los Muertos, Miguel finds himself transported to the land of the dead where he must find a member of his family to give him a blessing to help him return. Hearing a con artist ne’er-do-well skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) mention that he knows how to get access to de la Cruz (who is still a hugely big deal in the afterlife apparently), they decide to team up. Hector’s price is he needs Miguel to put his picture on his ofrenda so he can cross over to see his family and loved ones. Having been forgotten, he is in danger of completely fading away, suffering a “second death” from which no one knows where you go.
This brings to the forefront the film’s theme on the importance of remembering your family and loved ones. Perhaps better than any other Pixar movie to date, this has well-developed themes that make it not only entertaining but meaningful.
Also unlike other Pixar movies, this is a musical. But unlike the traditional Disney princess model of musical, here the music is an organic part of the story and storytelling. They sing songs that are thematically relevant, but they always do so because there is a talent competition, a concert, or so on. In this way, it’s very similar to last year’s Sing Street. There’s also an easy comparison to Kubo and the Two Strings, although that film did less with its music as a storytelling device, but both films up the ante with delivering authentic stories about family and loss mixed with a realistic, loving tribute to another culture.
And the music is excellent. One of the recurring songs is de la Cruz’s biggest hits “Remember Me.” This takes on special significance when understanding that it is the remembrance of our family that continues to sustain them even after death. A final version of the song sung at the end with Miguel reunited with his family will not leave a dry eye in the theater.
And then there’s the visuals. Pixar is able to deliver a beautiful, stylized version of the land of the dead that is surreal, vibrant, and beautiful. The use of color, especially of orange marigold petals, brings life to the film in unexpected ways. The “sugar skull” look of so many different faces gives each character a different look and feel.
The most spectacular are some of the creatures that act as “spirit guides” in the land of the dead. Based on dragons, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures they are day-glo, beautiful, and magical. Miguel’s great-great grandmother’s spirit guide is a giant winged cat-dragon who may be the most impressive visual feat of the film.
The music and the visuals brings up one of the more interesting details many will not notice, but when Miguel plays his guitar, his fingers are playing actual chords and his strums and finger picking is correct for the music he’s playing. This is yet another example of a film taking the time to make sure all its details are right and authentic.
A word of caution: don’t go see this movie in 3D. It doesn’t need it. And wearing sunglasses in the theater will only dampen the beauty of the color palatte, as well as making it harder to wipe away tears that will flow from all but the most stone-hearted among us.
This is not a perfect film. The plot twist at the end is a tad predictable, but for a medium whose entire raison d’être is repeat viewings ad nauseum on home video, it doesn’t need to be. Will it hold up over repeat viewings? Absolutely.
With so many families now spending time during the holidays going to see movies together, there is simply no better choice out there than Coco. Make a date to take your familia as soon as possible.
Final rating: 4.5 out of 5