Coco has more existential despair than most mainstream films, let alone most animated mainstream films. Many of its characters are already dead, so their biggest fear is being forgotten—a process called “the final death” that involves evaporating into nothingness. Younger audiences can handle it, since the concept of being forgotten is easier to swallow than the absence of existence. Still, this is not a dreary film, and its stunning visuals only bolster its heartwarming message. And by populating the film with characters who are not white or American—Pixar’s default setting for its 20-year reign—they finally take steps to celebrate culture beyond our borders.
Santa Cecilia is a fictional Mexican village, and that is where Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) lives with his family. His family is rich with tradition: Their biggest holiday is Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—and to Miguel’s chagrin, his family does not allow music inside the house. Four generations ago, the matriarch was heartbroken by her musician husband, to the point where music only reminded her of him, so avoiding it altogether is household policy. Miguel dreams of being a musician, and when he discovers his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) is also his great-great-grandfather, he is emboldened to steal Ernesto’s guitar for the village talent competition. The theft accidentally transports him to the Land of the Dead, an afterlife where Miguel’s ancestors exist in skeletal form. They try and help Miguel, but first he wants Ernesto’s blessing to pursue his dream.
Directed by Lee Unkrich, and co-directed by Adrian Molina, Coco’s interpretation of the Land of the Dead is a lot like Beetlejuice’s vision of the afterlife. There is no heaven or hell, and instead a dense metropolis brimming with color and cheeky, morbid humor. All the skeletons can remove their limbs and skulls, so part of the film’s charm is how everyone rearranges their bodies. There is also bureaucratic red tape—on Día de los Muertos, spirits can return to the land of the living, but only if they’re remembered by their ancestors—and the border between the two worlds looks uncannily like the Mexican border. These imaginative flourishes will amuse adults, while younger viewers will appreciate the goofy animals. Oddly enough, for a film brimming with fantastical creatures, its most delightful creation is Dante, a hairless dog. Goofy and gangly, with a long tongue, he runs like a cacophony of ragdoll limbs. In the film’s more serious moments, he offers levity simply by gnawing on his leg.
Miguel’s journey involves courage, self-discovery, and even more weighty concepts like betrayal and murder. His guide is Hector (Gael García Bernal), a humble skeleton who yearns for a visit back to Santa Cecilia before his “final death.” Together they prove their worth through improvisation, daring escapes, and even a musical interlude. Like many previous Pixar films, the script by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich is about the balance between personal fulfillment and greater responsibility. In Coco, this conflict is manifested between music and family, with the film constantly pushing Miguel toward one side or another. It is devilishly constructed, using flashbacks and plot twists to create a genuine impact. It is easy to look at the melodramatic plot with cynicism, and yet there is enough attention so the themes/characters in Coco earn every heartfelt emotional beat.
Like many other Pixar films, Coco does not rely on stars for its talented voice cast. Bernal is an arthouse staple, but hardly a household name, while the likes of Benjamin Bratt and Jane the Virgin’s Jaime Camil are recognizable in a “he sounds like that guy from that thing” kind of way. What matters more—indeed, what helps make Coco special—are the accents, sense of place, and details about Mexican culture. This film will carry extra meaning to children and families who have never seen their family represented on a rich, bright CGI canvas. As for those who know nothing about Día de los Muertos, this film will pique their curiosity and even provide a lesson in between evocative imagery and broad physical gags.
Pixar has not attempted a fairy tale since Brave, a film where Scottish girl power is undermined by a talking bear. Coco is an improvement, drawing upon magic realism and dizzying technical detail to create an immersive entertainment that never condescends to its audience. Día de los Muertos already has evocative imagery, and Coco exaggerates it with technical detail that offhandedly highlights its ambition (the Land of the Dead is a marvel of light and dense, computer-generated architecture). The arrival of a new Pixar film always invites the temptation to rank the film among their finest efforts. To its credit, Coco resists comparisons to Toy Story, Inside Out, and Wall-E. Unlike broad cartoons about toys or robots, the specificity and twists that are part fairytale, part telenovela, help make Coco unique.
Coco opens Wednesday in theaters everywhere.