Many of Pixar’s best films capture something truly elemental about the experience of being a child. Toy Story evoked the enduring emotional bond we have with our childhood toys. Monsters, Inc. played on our primal fear of the unknown. Inside Out gave voice to our bewildering tangle of emotions. And now Coco explores a similarly resonant theme: the tension between our family traditions and our burgeoning sense of personal identity. But the film embraces cultural specificity in a way that no other Pixar production has before, combining the studio’s customary emotional directness with a deep dive into a great nation’s art, music, history, and customs.
Focused on the tradition of the Day of the Dead, in which families gather to celebrate their deceased ancestors, Coco offers a festive, reverent, and wide-ranging pastiche of Mexican culture, touching on everything from Frida Kahlo to luchadores to the golden age of Mexican cinema. And at the center of the film is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), an impish 12-year-old who lives in Mexico with his family of shoemakers. Per a rather stringent ancestral tradition, Miguel’s family prohibits playing or even listening to music, a ban which the young boy surreptitiously disobeys by sneaking off to a hidden spot to sing and play guitar along to the films of legendary cowboy singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). These scenes of Miguel jamming along to old songs without a care in the world, lost in pure musical bliss, are some of the most potent in the film, capturing the earnest intensity of youthful passions.
But, of course, no childhood oasis remains forever undisturbed, and Miguel’s secret is soon discovered. His family demands that he give up on his musical dreams and begin taking up the family trade because, as his father (Jaime Camil) tells him, a Rivera is a shoemaker through and through. But scrappy little Miguel remains undeterred, resolving to compete in the local talent competition even if it means missing out on his family’s Day of the Dead festivities. Instead, however, thanks to somewhat ill-defined metaphysical happenstance, Miguel finds himself transferred over to the realm of the dead, where he will discover the hidden secrets of his family’s past with the help of a scheming drifter named Héctor (Gael García Bernal).
Drawing heavily on traditional Mexican folk art, director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina depict the dead as gangly skeleton figures with colorful skulls. Though the dead can cross over to the world of the living via a bridge of marigolds, they otherwise reside in their own vibrant, bustling cityscape where neon-gleaming alebrijes fly through the sky. Here, the memory of the living serves as both a kind of currency as well as a life source. The more you’re remembered, the richer you are; once you’re completely forgotten, you disappear even from the land of the dead, floating away in a puff of glitter.
Much of the drama in Coco hinges on Héctor’s desperate maneuvers to be remembered by someone, anyone, in the world of the living so that he can cling to his afterlife. With the possible exception of WALL-E’s depiction of our planet as a depopulated trash heap, this is perhaps Pixar’s bleakest vision, a world in which one dies not once but twice, the second time from a collective disregard for a person’s very existence. And this gloomy theme is underlined throughout the film by an unusually dark undercurrent of humor, such as gag in which De la Cruz is crushed to death by a bell.
The mood, though, is lightened considerably by the film’s exuberant musical numbers. Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the songs cover a broad range of traditional Mexican styles, from plaintive ballads to raucous mariachi. The wacky “Un Poco Loco” serves as the basis for the film’s most purely joyful sequence, a show-stopping musical performance featuring Héctor whisking his bones around like a deranged marionette. And the tender “Remember Me” serves as a motif deftly woven into the narrative fabric of the film, all the way to a poignant emotional climax in which Miguel plays the song for his great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía).
Unfortunately, the road getting to that genuinely stirring moment is often rough going. As the script begins to unravel the secrets of Miguel’s ancestors, the film gets bogged down in its over-plotted family melodrama, with the last third in particular feeling like the filmmakers are running down a narrative to-do list. It doesn’t help that Coco’s somewhat complicated mythology, which involves ofrendas, blessings, and a seemingly arbitrary sunrise deadline, also requires a good deal of table setting. With so much information to plow through, the film too often bolts from one plot point to the next when it should be simply sitting back and enjoying the moment. Because when it turns down the volume on its cacophonous narrative and turns up the music, Coco achieves moments as powerful as anything in the Pixar canon.