Coco is the sprightly story of a young boy who wants to be a musician and somehow finds himself communing with talking skeletons in the land of the dead. Directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Pixar’s superb animator Adrian Molina, and drawing loosely on Mexican folklore and traditional designs, it has catchy music, a complex yet comprehensible plot, and bits of domestic comedy and media satire.
Most of the time the film is a knockabout slapstick comedy with a “Back to the Future” feeling, staging big action scenes and feeding audiences new plot information each few minutes, but of course, being a Pixar movie, “Coco ” is also building toward emotionally overwhelming moments, so silently that you may be surprised to find yourself wiping away a tear although the studio has been using the sneak-attack playbook for centuries. The film’s hero, twelve-year old Miguel Riviera (voice by Anthony Gonzalez), lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia.
He’s a goodhearted child who loves to play guitar and idolizes the greatest popular singer-songwriter of the 1920s and ’30s, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who was killed when a huge church bell fell on his head. But Miguel has to busk in secret because his family has banned its members from performing music ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left, abandoning his loved ones to selfishly pursue his dreams of stardom. At least that’s the official story passed down through the generations; it’ll be challenged as the film unfolds, not through a traditional detective story (although there’s a mystery element to Coco) but through an Alice in Wonderland journey to the Land of the Dead, which the hero accesses through the tomb of his ancestors.
Family and legacy as expressed via storytelling and music: this is the deeper preoccupation of Coco.
One of the most fascinating things about the movie is the way it builds its plot around members of Miguel’s family, living and dead, as they battle to determine the official narrative of Miguel’s great-great grandfather and what his disappearance from the narrative meant for the extended clan. The title character is the hero’s great-grandmother (Renee Victor), who was traumatized by her dad’s disappearance. In her old age, she has become a nearly silent presence, sitting in the corner and staring blankly ahead, as if hypnotized by a sweet, old film perpetually unreeling in her mind.
The machinations that bring Miguel to the other side are way too complicated to simply explain in a review, even though they’re comprehensible as you watch the film. Suffice to say that Miguel gets there, teams up with a melancholy goofball named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and has to pose as one of the dead with the aid of skeletal facepaint, but that (like Marty McFly returning to the 1950s to make sure his mom ends up with his dad in Future) the longer Miguel stays on the other side, the more likely he is to end up actually dead.
I’m reluctant to describe the film’s plot in too much detail because, even though every twist seems obvious in retrospect, Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s script frames each one so that seems delightful and inevitable. Many of them are conveyed through a stolen family photograph that Miguel brings with him to the Land of the Dead. The deployment of the photo is a great example of how to tell a story through pictures, or more accurately, with a picture. Somebody’s face has been torn out; there’s a guitar that proves to be important later, and there are other ways in which visual information has been withheld from Miguel (and us) so that it can be revealed or restored when the time is right, completing and correcting an incomplete or distorted picture, and picture.
What’s freshest, though, is the tone and outlook of the film. Coco was released in Mexico a month before it opened in the US and is already the highest grossing movie of all time there. It assumes a non-American perspective on spirituality and culture—not in a touristy or thought experiment kind of way, but as if it were simply the latest product of an alternate universe Pixar Mexicano that has existed for just as long as the rest. The movie’s stable of voice actors reads like a Who’s Who of Latin-American talent: the cast consists of Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Alanna Ubach and, in a minor role, to my surprise and astonishment, playwright Octavio Solis, who used to be one of my high school teachers back in Dallas.
Michael Giacchino’s score is undoubtedly excellent, as are the original songs—especially the future Oscar winner “Remember Me,” the greatest tear-eruption mechanism to accompany a Pixar introduce since the “Toy Story 2” centerpiece “When She Loved Me.”
Like most Pixar movies, Coco film is filled with homages to movie history in general and animation history in particular. I was especially fond of the references to the dancing skeletons that seemed to pop up constantly in cartoon shorts from the 1930s. There’s a touch of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki in the film’s matter-of-fact depiction of the dead interacting with the living, as well as its portrayal of certain creatures, such as a goofy, goggle-eyed dog named Dante (modeled on Xoloitzcuintli, the national dog of Mexico) and a gigantic flying dragon-type beast with the personality of a plump old housecat.
Also remarkable are the movie’s widescreen compositions, which put lots of characters in the same frame and film them from the waist up or from head-to-toe, in the fashion of old musicals, or Hollywood comedies from the 90s like “9 to 5” or “Tootsie.” The direction lets you appreciate how the characters interact with each other and with their environments and lets you decide what to look at. At first this approach appears counter-intuitive for a film filled with fantastic creatures, structures and situations, but it ends up being effective for that very same reason: it makes you feel as though you’re witnessing a record of things that are really happening, and it makes Coco feel soft and unassuming even though it’s a huge, brash, loud movie.