Pixar’s 19th animated feature starts from a familiar place, centered around a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) with only one passion: to become a great musician, a dream which seems to echo the singular passion of Ratatouille‘s aspiring chef, Remy. Miguel idolizes the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a world famous guitar player whose career was cut short by an unfortunate incident with an oversized stage prop, and whose legend lives on via his numerous black and white movies, his signature ballad “Remember Me” and the statue which stands prominently in the center of Miguel’s village.
There’s just one tiny problem: years ago, one of Miguel’s ancestors abandoned his wife and daughter to become a mariachi, and the ensuing heartache led the family to forsake music altogether, a ban that has been passed down from generation to generation and strictly upheld by Miguel’s stern abuelita (Renée Victor). Miguel hopes that showing off his talents during the Dia de los Muertos festival might change the family’s mind, but a surprising chain of events finds the boy transported to the Land of the Dead, where he comes face-to-face with a collection of long-deceased ancestors.
It’s here where Coco‘s true narrative begins to take shape: Dia de los Muertos is the one day each year when spirits can cross over from the Land of the Dead to visit their living relatives – provided those relatives place a photo of their loved ones on their ofrenda, an altar used during the celebration to invoke memories of one’s ancestors. Miguel strikes a bargain with a lonely spirit named Hector (Gael García Bernal): he’ll return to the land of the living and place Hector’s photo on his family’s ofrenda so Hector can visit his daughter, but only if Hector introduces Miguel to Ernesto de la Cruz.
Much of the joy in Coco is derived from the beautifully rendered Land of the Dead, animated in bright colors and intricate designs which honor the spirit of Mexican culture, with inhabitants appearing as skeletal versions of their former selves. It’s refreshing to see a studio with such a massive reach take such care in representing other cultures, and one of of my favorite little details is how often words or phrases are spoken in Spanish without any kind of translation – the film expects its audience to utilize context clues in order to understand, and it makes no apologies for its refusal to cater to those who can’t be bothered to keep up.
Coco also defies expectations by presenting itself as another story about a character chasing after a dream – while Miguel certainly continues to pursue his desire to become a musician, that arc takes a backseat to a more fleshed-out (no pun intended) story about redemption for the mistakes we’ve made and the unshakable bonds of family. The resolution, featuring a visit between Miguel and his senile great-grandmother (from whom the film gets its name) is one of the most beautiful and emotionally stirring scenes in recent memory, and sure to have even the most dispassionate audience members reaching for a tissue.
Co-directed by Adrian Molina and Toy Story 3 helmer Lee Unkrich, Coco doesn’t quite reach the heights of Pixar’s greatest achievements like Up or Wall-E, but it certainly belongs in the upper echelon. Hopefully the film’s success – it’s already the highest-grossing film of all time in Mexico – will pave the way for a more diverse selection of projects in the future.