The bright and colorful celebrations that happen throughout Mexico in Día de los Muertos speak volumes about the power of perspective, showing how one’s outlook on life and its unexpected ups and downs can alter even the dreariest scenarios. After all, through their traditions, the Mexican people shift the meaning of what is often seen as a purely tragic event, turning it into a far more significant happening. What could be a day filled with lonesome sadness and mourning, becomes an occasion of remembrance, when family bonds are strengthened by gathering loved ones around gorgeously decorated altars where pictures of the deceased – as well as their favorite food and beverages – are beautifully arranged, honoring the legacy they have left behind, and gladly welcoming the souls that come visit this earthly realm once a year.
It is not surprising, therefore, that such a rich cultural setting would inspire artists and filmmakers to come up with works based on the holiday; furthermore, given the visual splendor of the festivity and its position right between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the imagination-stirring strength of spirituality, it is not shocking the animation medium, where the two sides of that coin can merge seamlessly, would be perfect for that endeavor. The combination is, in fact, so promising that Pixar’s Coco is not the first movie to take advantage of it, being preceded by Fox’s The Book of Life – which also tackled Día de los Muertos via the art of animation – by a whopping three years.
For Pixar fans, the good news is that Coco succeeds in simultaneously hitting two marks that have, in recent years, become unfortunately uncommon for the company. Not only is Coco not a sequel to any of their established properties, but it is also able to hit the high level of excellency that originally propelled Pixar above the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the race for the genre’s throne. It is a considerable achievement in visual art, writing, emotional poignancy, and – in a rather rare turn for Pixar – music, proving that while fully original ideas may be scarce nowadays in Emeryville, when one of them does show up the talented minds within the studio are still able to polish it into a remarkable piece of cinema.
Coco follows the story of Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who desperately wants to become a musician. Sadly, for him, he happens to have been born in the only family of the entire village in which music is seen as an unforgivable sin. As it turns out, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was a musician himself; however, in the pursuit of his dreams, he chose to abandon his wife and daughter in order to hit the road, only to never return. Broken, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother built a career in shoemaking, forbade singing and the use of musical instruments in the household, and became the matriarch of a big caring family.
When Día de los Muertos comes, and as his great-grandmother and all her descendants are making the proper preparations for the holiday, Miguel sees an opportunity to chase his aspirations upon learning of a talent show that will take place in the village’s square. After being forced, due to his family’s resistance, to steal the guitar places by the grave of a massively popular Mexican singer who lived in town, Miguel is transported to The Land of the Dead, where the only way out is to either accept the blessing of his music-hating great-great-grandmother or looking for his lost great-great-grandfather.
During a good portion of its first half, Coco safely plays by the rules that have been established in various spectacular movies of the Pixar canon. From the setting up of its initial conflict – the in-family feud – to Miguel’s first venture into The Land of the Dead, it is likely viewers will experience a feeling of familiarity, as if Coco were treading onto new thematic ground while tightly following the bullet points of a travel guide it carries under its arm. Nonetheless, even in those instances that come off as slightly formulaic, there is still plenty to be praised.
Firstly, even though the resistance of Miguel’s family towards music seems to be a bit too extreme to be believable, there is quite a heavy undertone in the showing of how relatives and parents that are so lovely and filled with good intentions can also be unnecessarily harsh and prejudice-ridden when they are pushed towards the edge of their beliefs and comfort zones. Secondly, despite the fact the visual and thematic wonder that is The Land of the Dead reveals itself through the traditional Pixar gags and the incorporation of the nature of this fantastic world into everyday bureaucracy such as office work, transportation, and airport customs, it is undeniable that Pixar’s folks know how to do it better than anybody else.
On a lighter spectrum, there are plenty of jokes and genuinely clever slapstick moments regarding the bony composition of many of the characters or the fact they are dead; likewise, the theme of death, the journey between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the Mexican culture upon which the movie is based are all treated with great tenderness, respect, and sensibility. Pixar, however, is not afraid to dive into the darkest shades of its concepts, and as a film about death Coco holds some pretty somber corners; consequently, as they are often bound to do, the studio dares to jump into the abyss and comes away with spectacular results.
In Coco, the ultimate source of anguish is not death itself; after all, besides being completely inevitable, the traditions and beliefs of Día de los Muertos as well as the artistic touches of Pixar make it seem like a beautiful, and amusing, journey. What drives Coco is the fear of being forgotten: humans have been programmed to try to achieve a certain degree of immortality, be it through their offspring, through their deeds, or through their legacy. Leaving a lasting mark is an action that is completely under the species’ control, a fact that makes not being remembered by a single living person a towering nightmare. And with that knowledge in mind Coco sets out to deliver the usual, but always painful, Pixar punches, which are likely to leave children gasping and adults crying.
The only problem that plagues Coco is that it takes a while to get there. The moments that define it and make it stand out among the delightful myriad of masterful Pixar animations are all tucked away in its second half, making what comes before it feel like a long – yet very much enjoyable – buildup. When Coco takes off, it transforms into a Russian nesting doll of plot twists which instead of getting smaller and less significant as they appear, just seem to become bigger and heavier as they pop out. It is a tough journey, but one that – by revealing quite a lot about Miguel’s family’s past – brings them closer together rather than setting them further apart, which is just about the perfect ending for a movie inspired by a celebration where family union and legacies of love are in the spotlight.