Coco, the latest Pixar film, is based on Día de Muertos, the Mexican holiday that involves gatherings of family and friends to remember the dead. The holiday’s distinct visuals are something of a cultural export, and a concern among many was that Coco would be exploitative or appropriative, borrowing the colors, skeletons and altars without really tapping into what the actual event is about in the first place.
There is no need for concern.
Coco is one of Pixar’s most heartfelt movies (which is saying something) because it fully embraces the emotional significance of Día de Muertos. Pixar has always embraced high concepts, sometimes at the expense of stories that feel real and heartfelt. Not so here.
“Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be.”
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year old living in a fictional Mexican village. He comes from a family of shoemakers, but what he really wants to do is make music like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who was the most famous musician in the history of Mexico before an untimely demise.
Unfortunately, music is banned in Miguel’s family because his great-great-grandfather left the village to pursue his dreams and never returned, leaving Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and their young daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), to fend for themselves. Miguel’s desire to play music and his relationship with his family create a conflict that, naturally, comes to a resolution only after an adventure in the Land of the Dead, where he ends up after stealing the guitar from Ernesto de la Cruz’s crypt.
The bones of the story are fairly straightforward, as with most of Pixar’s output. But what Miguel encounters in the Land of the Dead and how his adventures ultimately speak to the emotional experience of remembering family and the real, lasting power of ritual holidays like Día de Muertos … well, I’ve seen almost all of Pixar’s movies, and I think this this is their most special.
Whereas Inside Out (also a masterpiece) used the modern metaphor of machinery and bureaucracy to describe the inner workings of a child’s mind, Coco uses imagery and concepts that have existed for centuries and, in fact, exist cross-culturally. Don’t misunderstand: This is a Mexican movie through-and-through, both behind the scenes and on the screen. But the relationships and experiences it taps into are universal truths. And through storytelling that taps into those experiences of family, of mourning, of growing up, we can better understand the way other cultures live outside our own — which I think we all need now, more than ever.
If you’ve been in a movie theater for the past six months, you’ve probably seen the promo reel that highlights Coco’s music and the way Pixar animators took pains to make the guitar playing look as authentic as possible. Every one of their movies has at least one marketing angle about a specific advance in animation technology, and rightly so. They do a great job of it. The songs are written by Germaine Franco, Adrian Molina, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and each one is outstanding. “Remember Me,” the keystone song of the piece, is the kind of song that makes your eyes itch and puts a pit in your stomach, particularly in the context of how it appears in the movie.
Michael Giacchino, now one of Disney’s go-to composers, is surprisingly a weak point here. His score isn’t bad, but it’s not notable. I suppose it doesn’t necessarily need to be but it’s also the only element of the film that isn’t great.
There’s a transcendent quality to Coco; it’s so earnest, so honest, so achingly affecting. It’s wonderful to witness Pixar succeed at producing something authentic to Mexican culture, while also tapping into the reason why Día de Muertos has such a broad appeal.
It’s this year’s best animated film hands down, and one of my favorites overall.