Can a person honor his family and pursue his dreams at the same time? That is the question at the heart of Coco, a whimsical and high-spirited romp through the underworld from Pixar Animation Studios. The tale of 12-year-old boy, Miguel Rivera, is an aspiring guitarist with a song in his heart and stardom on his mind. But to realize his destiny he must defy the wishes of his close-knit Mexican family, which, for reasons stemming from a long-ago ancestral scandal, has forbidden him from enjoying or pursuing music.
No such ban should be carried out on the audience for Coco, which bounces along to the beat of a Michael Giacchino note, some traditional Mexican songs and several original tunes that never run the risk of burrowing into your soul. (The most important one, ironically, is titled Remember Me.) But while the film revels in its music and duly rebukes the Riveras for trying to stifle young Miguel’s fate, it also comes down strongly on the side of family, taking pains to acknowledge the importance of staying true to one’s roots.
It does this partly by upholding its own impressive creative and corporate lineage. Directed by Lee Unkrich with some of the warmth and imagination he brought to Toy Story 3 (and co-directed by Adrian Molina, who wrote the script with Matthew Aldrich), Coco is the first of Pixar’s 19 movies to feature a non-white human main character, diversifying a company slate that has already proven a model of inclusivity with love for talking fish, sentient toys and anthropomorphic cars.
Try as you might to lose yourself in Coco, or pause to ponder its metaphysics, too often you find yourself hindered by the movie’s breathless velocity.
But beyond the novelty of showing animated characters eat tamales and spew the occasional word of Spanish, the film betrays an instinctive kinship with the Disney brand that is by turns pleasing and utterly unsurprising. It is an alternately smooth and strenuous Pixarian weave of bright colors, spirited chatter and inventive action, prepared and tested in accordance with the highest factory standards.
After an inspired prologue crafted wholly in the intricate papel-picado style of tissue-paper art, the tale begins on Día de los Muertos, the holiday when Mexican families show their late ancestors’ photographs together with food offerings on a commemorative altar. But while Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) loves his family — especially his lovely wizened great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) — he is less thrilled by the upcoming festivities than by the prospect of performing in a local talent show.
That doesn’t go well with the music-hating Riveras family, especially Miguel’s domineering grandmother (Renee Victor), an overly broad caricature who does her job to set the plot in motion by smashing the boy’s guitar like a piñata. In a more satisfying version of Coco the Riveras’ fiesta might have quickly gone the way of Carrie’s prom. Yet young Miguel, a good boy at heart, merely finds a new guitar in the nearby grave of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary musician and movie star in the Pedro Infante mold.
Robbing a crypt on this day of all days, god, is a serious no-no, and with one strum of Ernesto’s guitar, Miguel finds himself stuck in the Land of the Dead, where the dead — walking, talking skeletons with a sheen of orange ectoplasm — are preparing to visit their families on the other side. And so Coco begins its extended journey across a gorgeous pink-and-purple-daubed vision of Hades, with Miguel basically playing Orpheus in a red hoodie. (He even has a canine sidekick named Dante.)
If that sounds pretty grim for a PG rated film (thanks to that horror of horrors, thematic elements), the script’s ghoulish touches and mordant flashes of smartness turn out to be its most disarming qualities. Kids may squirm in delight when Miguel realizes he’s turning into a skeleton, one phalange at a time, and will soon be dead himself unless he finds his way back to the land of the living by morning. To do this, he must secure a blessing from his ancestors — a tricky proposition, as none of them is willing to let him return home unless he agrees to their music moratorium.
In perhaps the tale’s most poignant conceit, death ends up being simply another circle of life where the deceased can remain and live so long as they are remembered by a living, breathing loved one. That raises the stakes a bit when Miguel meets a street-smart skeleton named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who is desperate to ensure that his mortal legacy is not erased. Their partnership complicates a complex plot already busy with chases, coincidences, ancient secrets, mistaken identities and Frida Kahlo sightings, and it deals with each twist like a roller coaster navigating a new loop.
Which is only fitting, since the film’s underworld hints at nothing so much as a giant theme park, complete with turnstiles, busy streets and gaudy attractions (none more brilliant than the alebrijes, fantastical winged animals come to life). There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The greatest theme parks, Disney’s too, are worth getting lost in. But try as you could to lose yourself in Coco, or at least pause long enough to reflect its metaphysics, too often you might find yourself hindered by the film’s breathless velocity.
And thus by the unceasing monotony of its character design. The visuals have the telltale Pixar richness; you feel a hundred of different creative choices went into the animation of a simple confetti shower. However, alike to previous films, including Corpse Bride and the similarly Día de los Muertos-themed The Book of Life, Coco gives a reminder that skeletons, for all their googly eyeballs and glorious bone structure, are not the most emotionally expressive creatures. But for Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (an exceptional Alanna Ubach), his dead relatives are a quite hard to distinguish and — sorry — lifeless bunch.
The action beats arrive right on cue, followed in due course by a showstopping musical climax and an ending all but guaranteed to tickle your tear ducts. The question raise at the outset — can a person honor his family and pursue his dreams at the same time? — is answered with the kind of skill and ingenuity that leaves you firmly suspecting it was bogus to start with.
None of those things makes Coco really a bad film, indeed, only one whose flights of imaginative frenzy are too confined by formula, at the end, for it to be regarded as a great one. In the best Pixar flicks, Wall-E, Inside Out and Toy Story 3 among them, you get the sense of moviemakers boldly and exceptionally conquering new terrain. Coco, in contrary, feels ruled by more timid, responsible spirits. Its goal is to make sure, to provoke no offense and to give an underserved culture the sentimental, uplifting Hollywood cash cow it truly deserves. Progress could certainly look worse.