The superficial checklist for a Disney animation usually contains an important moral lesson, a wacky animal sidekick, an asexual romance and at least one frantic chase scene. But hid underneath the bright color palette usually lies a bittersweet tone and a surprisingly deft examination of sorrow.
In films from Bambi to The Lion King to Frozen to, most notably, Up, slapstick antics have sat alongside impactful stories of loss, adding rich emotional texture to a light canvas and teaching a younger audience about death without employing a heavy hand.In Coco, the studio’s latest collaboration with Pixar, the dead have never been so present, quite literally.
The story follows Miguel, a Mexican boy who aspires to be a musician – yet in his family, all forms of music are banned. The reason for this absolute mandate can be traced back to his great-great-grandmother, who was left by her singer-songwriter husband so he could pursuit his dreams and then instilled a hatred of music in following generations as a result. When the annual Day of the Dead rises, Miguel rebels from those surrounding him and inadvertently finds himself stuck on the other side, an exciting yet dangerous realm inhabited by those who have crossed over. He must try to find his way back to the living while also proving his musical talents.
If it all sounds a bit ramshackle, well, for a while, it kind of is. As with some of Pixar’s other original films, such as Inside Out and Wall-E, there’s a complex universe to set up, and within the first 15 minutes of Coco, we’re bombarded with exposition. But there’s a trademark slickness that sells it and while recognizable tropes are clear, there’s something warm and soothing about their familiarity, and it helps that they play out within such fantastical, fresh-feeling surroundings.
The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar’s most visually ambitious worlds yet – a breathtaking vision of interconnected neon-lit boroughs, based loosely on Guanajuato in central Mexico. Its residents can cross over to the world of the living if, on the Day of the Dead, someone chooses to pay tribute to them with a photograph whereas their existence on the other side collapses once all memory of them fades in the real world.
Once the slightly tiring explanation is out of the way, these rules allow for a poignant through-line about the impact we have on those around us once we’ve died, based on how we choose to live our lives. Miguel is torn between a love for his family and a love for music, the former worrying that the latter will tear them apart.
Coco asks what form of legacy matters the most and whether our personal ambitions can successfully coexist alongside our commitment to loved ones. For certain, profound existential questions are brought about in a brightly colored package, alive with wit, action set pieces and, most crucially, music. Unlike a large number of Disney’s animated offerings, Pixar films have done away with original songs but Coco’s plot allows for a prominent smattering of catchy tunes. One especially, the frequently replayed Remember Me, has the likeliness to join the stacked pantheon of much-loved Disney songs with sweetly sorrowful lyrics about life and loss.
The border between the living and the dead, which operates in a similar way to a customs department, also brings up unavoidable real-world comparisons. Trump’s attempts to defame and deport Mexican immigrants cast an off-screen shadow over these sequences, but Coco is centered less on specific politics and more on something wider. After Moana and Queen of Katwe last year, it’s the latest film in the studio’s drive to bring more diversity to their genre and using an exclusively Latino cast (featuring Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt) in a movie that will reach such a wide audience feels like another important step.
While there’s a previously mentioned adherence to the Pixar playbook of predictable plot elements, the script does manage one genuinely surprising twist in the third act. As the final stretch approaches, there’s also the requisite tug at the heartstrings although it’s delivered with such devastating delicacy that even steely viewers will find themselves moist-eyed.