Coco is a delight from start to finish, and a welcome return to form for Pixar, as this is probably the animation studio’s best outing since 2015’s Inside Out. Whereas the intervening The Good Dinosaur was muddled from conception, and Finding Dory and Cars 3 played like efficient enough corporate obligations, Coco feels fresh and inspired thanks to a poignant story, a lovely immersion in Mexican culture, and a handful of rousing musical numbers (it also tells a quite different tale, although with similar elements, than 2014’s Guillermo del Toro-produced Book of Life).
The film is set on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, where 12-year-old Miguel Riviera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a musician like the famous Ernesto de la Cruz, a local legend who became a popular singer and film star before his accidental death a century earlier. But Miguel’s ambitions are banned by his brood, since his own great-great-grandfather–whose identity is a mystery–left the family behind to pursue his musical goals while his late great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) struggled to turn the family into successful if unremarkable shoemakers.
Desperate to perform in a town talent contest after his grandmother smashes his own guitar, Miguel defies his elders by breaking into De la Cruz’s mausoleum to “borrow” the dead man’s guitar. But touching it sends Miguel to the Land of the Dead, where he must find a way to return before sunrise or else he’ll stay there permanently. Luckily he’ll have a little help from Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a spirit who will be forgotten entirely if Miguel cannot bring his photo back to the land of the living, in navigating a colorful great beyond.
The story from there takes several twists and turns that we won’t get into here, and while some of the narrative’s beats are familiar from past Pixar outings, they’re delivered with passion and heart by co-directors Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina, who also penned the screenplay together. Themes of love, family, and friendship are familiar items from the Pixar oeuvre, but are delivered here in a less ham-handed way than some of the company’s more recent efforts. Coco is character-driven in the best possible way, and all of its major characters are given layers of complexity that you’d be hard-pressed to find in a lot of live-action films.
After the reliable but still rather unmemorable visual palettes of the last few films, Coco outdoes itself in that department as well with the amazing world-building of the Land of the Dead. Eye-poppingly designed as a multi-level city ablaze with color and a glow of spiritual essence, the Land of the Dead is slightly anachronistic in some ways but positioned intriguingly as a sort of alternate dimension–where the deceased continue to lead full “lives,” as it were, but where a strange fatalism permeates the surroundings. The skeletal beings (influenced by Mexican folk art) who inhabit this realm are both funny and subtly eerie, and one sequence detailing the fate of one lonely soul who is no longer remembered by anyone in the land of the living is both chilling and tremendously sad.
Let’s not get too morbid, however; this isn’t an arthouse rumination on the nature of death–although those darker concerns are woven into the fabric of the story–but a Pixar adventure full of humor and soul and profound themes. The lessons involving families and our memories of them are moving and tear-inducing, if not quite as emotionally devastating as those found in Inside Out or other earlier Pixar classics. The movie also dives deep into Mexican culture and family life, representing both in a way that it would be a joy to see more of, especially during a dark period in which that country has seen itself demonized and scapegoated. But Coco is not heavy-handed at all this regard, preferring to let the story and setting do the talking (it also takes a gentle but incisive swipe at celebrity culture and our addiction to fame–but again, not in a blunt force way).
Will Coco end up near or even among the vaunted company of such all-time Pixar classics like Toy Story, The Incredibles, WALL-E or Ratatouille? It’s hard to say this early, and it could be easy to overrate the movie after the tough couple of years the studio has slogged through. At last, here is a Pixar movie that gives us something that doesn’t feel like it was conceived in a boardroom full of suits instead of the minds, hearts, and creative toolkits of the studio’s artists and filmmakers. While Coco is quick to point out that making shoes is just as honorable as making music, one can tell that music was a bit more important this time out.
Coco is out in theaters this Wednesday (Nov. 22).