Unlike Inside Out, which dove into the portions of our mind that make up personality, Pixar’s latest, Coco, opts to give us a bigger-picture view into what makes us unique in terms of our culture and the things that inspire us. This is the rich, colorful and utterly inspired tapestry that the story of pre-teen Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is painted upon as we go deep into Mexican folklore to find out why this kid, who was raised to hate music, wants so desperately to become a great musician like his hero, the late superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Even Miguel is a bit curious about why he’s willing to defy his family members to pick up a guitar. His family’s aversion to music goes back many generations, to when Miguel’s still-living great-grandmother was jilted by her musician husband (whose name is never spoken). After a little detective work, Miguel deduces that his great-grandfather is De La Cruz himself, and he heads to his tomb on the Day of the Dead to “borrow” his guitar to play in the town square.
Through a bit of supernatural mumbo-jumbo, Miguel is inadvertently sent to the Land of the Dead, the occupants of which are heading to the land of the living for the day to visit (unseen) with those family members who still remember them. In a land filled with skeletons, a skin-covered boy sends the residents of this other-worldly place into a frenzy, and Miguel quickly goes into hiding while attempting to find out how to return to the real world.
Along his journey, he meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who cannot get past security into the land of the living because no one on the other side has put up a photo of him, which is required to cross over on this most sacred of days. As the film progresses, it becomes less about Miguel’s journey to find De La Cruz and more about discovering the intricacies and rules of the of the Land of the Dead, one of which simply states that once every living person has forgotten you, you effectively die forever, and the lovable con artist Hector is showing signs that his days are numbered.
Director Lee Unkrich (who helmed or co-directed Toy Story 2 & 3, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc.) and co-director and long-time Pixar animator Adrian Molina have kicked the visual beauty of Coco into overdrive, designing a Land of the Dead that is like the greatest skeleton playground ever built. The way the skeleton characters move is more limber, bouncier than the humans, almost like they’re on strings; and they have eyes in their sockets which makes no sense, but it makes them so much more expressive, I didn’t care.
Let’s not forget: this is the animation house that made a moving film about rat in a gourmet Paris kitchen; skeletons with eyes don’t seem that crazy. There is such beauty in every frame of Coco that it’s almost required that you see it more than once to allow your eyes to truly scan the frame and examine the details. The screening I attended was not in 3-D, but I can imagine seeing it that way would be quite incredible.
Guided by Hector, Miguel does meet his idol/possible relative in the Land of the Dead, and all of the old adages about meeting your heroes sadly come true. But in the process of tracking him down, Miguel begins to learn the value of his own family, both back home and no longer living. There are a few unexpected turns in Coco, both in terms of the plot and the sources of the film’s most emotional moments, which sneak up on the audience so effectively that you almost forget that Pixar practically invented this level of emotional guerrilla warfare.
And the music is so useful in the way it moves the story, but also in the way it provides a lovely backdrop for the action. The recurring use of the song “Remember Me” is particularly ingenious. It starts out as a love song and one of De La Cruz’s biggest hits, but by the end of the film, it’s transformed into something that will make you weep openly and repeatedly.
Coco taps into every person’s inherent need to be a part of a family, even if it’s not our own. Its ideas on memory and honoring tradition is almost more than I’ve come to expect, even from a place like Pixar. The movie reminds us that, while they don’t always get it right, Pixar has a creative mechanism in place that usually course corrects any flaws in the hopes of making the final work as close to a masterpiece as possible. This stunning and rich work is one of those films.