Coco’s beauty is universal and timeless.
The Grim Reaper is no stranger to children’s movies, and with each visit he’s arrived as a shock. Ever since Bambi’s mother and a nameless hunter crossed paths in the forest, four generations of kids have regularly encountered mortality onscreen and been left with scar tissue as a result. From Dumbo to multiple chapters in the Harry Potter franchise, life’s end has been equated with tragedy, something to grapple with and overcome.
Pixar has contributed to this long and gloomy tradition with typical nuance and grace. Though Finding Nemo began with a terrifying massacre, Up’s opening montage presented death as something sad yet ordinary. Toy Story 3 climaxed with a harrowing sequence, but the emphasis was on its beloved characters accepting their demise with quiet dignity. And Inside Out reached its emotional zenith when, after an act of trickery, poor Bing Bong sacrificed himself for Joy.
The clear-eyed and triumphant Coco, Pixar’s 19th feature, presents death in an entirely different manner. It approaches mortality, the afterlife and beyond in ways only previously seen in maudlin adult dramas such as Ghost and What Dreams May Come. With the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos as its springboard, Coco doesn’t shy away from or sugarcoat grand existential questions. Its festive spirit smuggles in deeper, interconnected themes that transcend this mortal coil: the enduring power of a familial connection, of a single memory, of a lovely tune.
Coco tells the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old member of the Riviera clan, shoemakers by trade and “the only family in Mexico who hates music.” His abuelita (Renee Victor) enforces a total ban on song and dance with an iron fist. It’s a tradition that began when her grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and mother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) were abandoned by her grandfather, many decades earlier, so he could pursue a career in music. The problem is, like the prodigal Riviera patriarch, our hero Miguel is a natural born musician, who listens to records and practices guitar on the sly, away from the gaze of his grandmother.
Coco begins on the morning of Día de Muertos, the annual Day of the Dead, when images of departed family members are placed on alter-like ofrendas embellished with candles and decorative skulls, foods favored by the deceased, garlands of amber marigolds. When Miguel knocks over a framed photograph of Mamá Imelda and her mysterious husband (whose visage has long been torn out), he discovers the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Mexico’s most famous singer and Miguel’s personal idol, may have been his great-great-grandfather. The revelation sets off a series of events – many of them clearly inspired by The Wizard of Oz, Beetlejuice and Spirited Away – that end with Miguel crossing into the afterlife, a living boy among the skeletal dead.
After traversing a dazzling bridge of marigolds, Miguel is introduced to the spirits of his ancestors. They include Mamá Imelda herself, who can’t cross the flower bridge into the world of the living for Día de Muertos now that her image is absent from the Riviera’s ofrenda. As his blood relative, Imelda can transport Miguel back to set things right, but will only do so if he promises to never play music again. He refuses and instead seeks out Ernesto de la Cruz, who could presumably send him home without such a stipulation.
And so Miguel quests through the Land of the Dead, here depicted as a vivid, neon-colored necropolis. He meets a lanky spirit named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who once knew Ernesto in life, and may hold the answer to a long-held Riviera family mystery. Héctor becomes a guide, the maladroit Scarecrow to Miguel’s flinty Dorothy, through a vertiginous city crisscrossed with cable cars and funiculars and teeming with bioluminescent ghost creatures called alebrije. Pixar has pushed the boundaries of art direction in the past, but even the imaginative interior worlds of Inside Out can’t match the delights of Coco’s weird urban panoramas.
Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) also cooked up Coco’s story, which – despite all of its ingenious world building and fantasy-movie rulemaking – is one of Pixar’s most conventional. There’s a rote, at times bland, quality to Miguel’s adventure. Each destination leads to a new complication and yet another destination, rinse and repeat until completion. Thankfully, wonderful distractions emerge along the way, such as the film’s salsa and mariachi inflected songs, the best of which is written by Frozen duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. And all is forgiven once Coco reaches its incredible final 20 minutes, the justification for Mamá Coco’s status as the picture’s namesake. It ranks among Pixar’s finest, wet-eyed cinematic stretches.
The whole of Coco is so much greater than its individual parts. Placed in full context, and against the current political climate, its Latino vocal cast and celebration of Mexican culture feel like a jubilant (though serendipitous) rebuke to the ugliness America has recently sent southward. Still, Coco’s beauty is universal and timeless. We perish not as current citizens of Mexico or China or Portugal or Australia or Kenya, but as humans. Death is the final clause of life’s ironclad contract. Why shed tears for matters beyond our grasp when we can throw a fabulous party instead?