I have never seen any of Pixar’s Cars movies. Something about the concept never really appealed to me. I’m not sure why. Old dude who flies his house across continents using helium balloons without losing so much as a shingle? No problem. A rat who wants to be a chef? Sure, I’ll watch that. A family of superheroes, sentient toys, a robot that can love? I’m there. A film about talking cars, co-starring Larry the Cable Guy? I just couldn’t.
What all this means is that I will follow Pixar almost anywhere. Moreover, I usually love the trip. They tell stories that work well for the typical target audience of Disney animation—little kids—and the people who buy the tickets.
I saw Coco with my wife, my son, and my youngest daughter, who is eighteen. Our theater, while not packed, was well-attended. Families with up to half a dozen kids piled in, popcorn and sodas and hot dogs in hand, ready to experience the latest Pixar magic.
We had heard that a twenty-minute short film preceded the feature, a point of contention among some local and vocal viewers we had encountered, but our showing got right to the main event. I’m not sure why. I was disappointed in that part of the experience, because I usually dig Pixar shorts, but that’s not Coco’s fault.
To the movie—Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a pre-teen would-be musician born into a family that hates music. Why? Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family—including his daughter, the wheelchair-bound and so-old-she’s-barely-aware titular character—for a music career. Formerly a passionate singer, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda, forswore music, banning it from her house and passing the edict down in the family ethos all the way to Miguel’s day. If his parents—or, worse, his fiery grandmother, known only as Abuelita—so much as catch him near a Mariachi, woe be unto that poor musician.
The film is set on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As Miguel tries to sneak away to practice his musicianship—the film never reveals how he procures a cheap guitar or builds a hideaway complete with a television or learns to play his instrument so well—Abuelita and the rest of the family try to teach Miguel the importance of building an altar to their dead ancestors, displaying pictures of the departed and leaving offerings, like food.
Convinced that his great-great-grandfather was the famous singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced with plenty of self-satisfied ooze by Benjamin Bratt), and infuriated with his closed-minded family after Abuelita destroys his guitar, Miguel runs away and attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum. This is, of course, a problem, because the cemetery is full of families cleaning and decorating tombstones. Stuck within the tomb, Miguel strums the guitar while standing on top of a carpet of flower petals and, through the magic of Dia de los Muertos, is transported to the light-filled, celebratory, walking-and-talking-skeleton-populated Land of the Dead.
The catch? Miguel is a live boy, but he can only stay that way if he returns to the Land of the Living before the holiday ends. To do so, he must get the blessing of his dead family—who will only grant it if he forswears music forever. Rejecting this condition, Miguel sets off on a quest to reach de la Cruz, whose celebrity status makes a visit nearly impossible. Aided by a mysterious figure named Hector, who desperately needs to reach the Land of the Living, and chased by Mama Imelda’s griffin-like spirit animal, the ever-more-skeletal Miguel races against time and the ways that the deepest, darkest truths of his family tie him ever tighter to the Dead.
If it seems like it took me a while to reach the film’s central conflicts, like this review leans heavily toward multiple points of exposition, that’s because the movie does, too. Along with some unanswered questions, like those mentioned above, the initial plot threads—Miguel’s love of music vs. his family’s unwavering rejection of it! Miguel’s need for an instrument and an audience! The identity of his great-great-grandfather! Mama Imelda’s ultimatum! The chase through the Dead’s city! The question of just who this Hector dude is! Why the film is named after a secondary character who barely moves or talks! The purpose of a lovable but doofy stray dog!—fly in many different directions, making for a haphazard and overly busy first act. When compared with the emotionally devastating yet economical storytelling of Up, for instance, Coco feels muddled.
Once Miguel runs from his dead family, just as he ran from his living one, and the race to find his musical ancestor coalesces with his race against time, the film gels, and its twin arcs—Miguel’s fate as a musician and his understanding the true importance of family history—interweave beautifully. From that point on, the already visually stunning movie churns at a quick pace, hitting key emotional beats at just the right time.
Pixar has gone dark before—Ellie’s death in Up, the third act of The Incredibles, the torture of toys in Toy Story and the attempted murder of our fave characters in Toy Story 3, the end of the world in Wall-E, et cetera. Somehow, though, parts of Coco feel even darker. There are long-kept family secrets, a devastating betrayal, a murder (!!!), questions of what happens in life after the afterlife, issues of legacy, Miguel’s increasingly skeletal body, and more. While some parents might find these elements a tad too dark for the film’s youngest viewers, they add gravitas and high stakes to the narrative, making Miguel’s journey feel urgent and intensely personal.
Yet the movie, rightly lauded for its commitment to diversity, also feels universal. Voiced by an entirely Latinx cast and exploring Mexican cultural traditions in a time when American leaders talk of bad hombres and border walls and travel bans, Coco, with its emphasis on family ties and the extraordinary power of art, feels necessary and timely in a way it might not have before November 2016. In fact, though the timeline of Pixar filmmaking almost guarantees that this is coincidental and not an intentional decision, Ernesto de la Cruz—vain, concerned above all else with his legacy and image, loyal only to his sycophants, greedy, myopic—bears, in terms of personality and values, more than a passing resemblance to certain Muppet-headed American leaders of today.
For all that, though, the story is, at one level, about one boy’s acceptance of and into his family—finding his place in the world. The scene between Miguel and Grandma Coco, praised in Entertainment Weekly as one of the top ten movie scenes of the year, may well break your heart, even as it makes you smile.
With excellent voice acting, Pixar’s high standards of astonishing visuals, cultural significance, timeliness, and poignant humanity, Coco overcomes its haphazard first act and proves itself a worthy entry into the Pixar canon.