Every critic has blind spots. I’m sure I have more than a few. The fact that it’s taken me this long to go see Coco, the latest feature from Disney’s Pixar studio, reflects my general indifference to mainstream animated films. Well, there were enough raves from people I respect for me to check out, and as it turns out, Coco is among the most creative and enjoyable animated features I’ve seen.
It’s directed by Lee Unkrich, and the very original story is by him and three other authors, one of whom, Adrian Molina, is Chicano and credited as co-director as well. It’s about a kid named Miguel living in a fictional Mexican town, who wants desperately to be a musician. The trouble is, his family hates music, a sentiment passed down through four generations because the great great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue a singing career, and was never heard from again. The great great grandmother started a shoemaking business to get by, and now the whole family makes shoes and wants Miguel to do the same. But he secretly plans to enter a musical competition in town happening on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The film’s exposition explains a little bit about this holiday, notably the custom of putting candles on an alter before pictures of deceased family members, in Miguel’s case going back to the great great grandmother, in a photograph in which the face of the traitorous musician has been cut out.
So Miguel goes to the festival, and circumstances which are too complicated to explain here propel him into the realm of the dead, where those who have passed away wear clothes and congregate much like the living, except that they’re all skeletons. He needs to find a great deceased singing star, his idol and inspiration whom he believes is his great great grandfather, so that the man’s blessing can bring Miguel back to the world of the living.
So this is the central device of the story, a way for the Pixar animation wizards to create a new world, and what a gorgeous job they did. The land of the dead is incredibly detailed and with vibrant colors, all inspired, it would seem, by Mayan art and architecture and to some degree by Oaxaca-influenced designs familiar to us from Day of the Dead skulls and other decorations. Coco’s visual style consistently dazzles both the eye and the imagination, with endless playful inventiveness.
The story gets a little overwrought at times, because of the familiar fault of trying to overload us with too many twists and turns. When the dead have to go through a border checkpoint in order to visit the living world during the holiday, it’s a joke that ignores deeper implications. In any case, the writers are smart enough to turn some of the assumptions made early in the film on their heads, and best of all for me is the rather daring theme of departed loved ones and the importance of keeping them in our memories. In this the picture is true to the spirit of Dia de los Muertos.
Coco is topped off by a finale that, I have to admit, had me in tears, not through cheap sentiment, but by a well-earned mixture of joy and grief, a true celebration of family and the bonds of memory that unite us.