Death comes to life and life comes to death in Pixar’s latest animated film “Coco.”
After a subpar “Cars 3” release, Pixar returned to its former glory with “Coco,” a film featuring exceptional animation, complex characters and hard-hitting themes about love, loss and legacy.
“Coco” follows the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician whose family’s hatred toward music traces back multiple generations. After stealing a guitar from the grave of his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel is transported to the awe-inspiring land of the dead on Día de los Muertos. There he teams up with misfit skeleton Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who offers his assistance in exchange for a chance to return to the human world and visit the family he left behind. Together, they journey to discover the truth behind Miguel’s family history and find his way back to the land of the living.
The primarily Latino cast is a refreshing ensemble that provides some necessary cultural representation for the film. Mexican tradition plays a major role in the story, and it’s clear that Pixar tried to ensure the film honored, rather than appropriated, Mexican customs. The film incorporates authentic details like papel picado, colorful tissue paper with intricately cut patterns hung at festivals in Mexico, traditional grave decorations such as marigold flowers and xoloitzcuintli, a breed of hairless, Mexican dogs.
While the foundation of the land of the living is built on Mexican customs, the realm of the dead draws from aspects of Mexican folklore to create a more imaginative fantasy world. The deceased are goofy, calavera skeletons who look forward to Día de los Muertos, their annual opportunity to cross an orange flower petal bridge into the land of the living and spend time with their families. They are only permitted to cross the border, guarded by immigration and customs, if their living families place their photos on the ofrenda – or the altar – in honor of their memory. Once the dead are no longer remembered, they completely cease to exist, a devastating concept that the film uses to illustrate the significant connection between families and their departed loved ones.
Pixar beautifully contrasts the understated realism of the human world with the vibrant, whimsical dimensions of the realm of the dead. Dazzling alebrijes, or brightly colored creatures from Mexican folklore who roam throughout the land of the dead as neon lizards and gryphons, give the film a vibrant visual scape. The meticulous attention to detail also shines in reverberating guitar strings, textured candle wax and vivid colors of exploding fireworks, all of which re-establish Pixar’s mastery of animation.
In addition to the visuals, guitar-based music provides viewers with an assortment of catchy, sing-along tunes. The songs, composed by Academy Award-winner Michael Giacchino, consist of tracks co-written by co-director Adrian Molina and “Frozen” duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. The soundtrack includes both soothing lullabies sung by a father to his daughter and upbeat numbers performed by Miguel and Héctor at a talent show in front of an exuberant audience of the dead. The film’s standout track is the recurring, sentimental “Remember Me,” which begins as a generic pop number played by Ernesto de la Cruz for thousands of screaming fans, before taking on the more emotionally stirring idea of remembrance by the end of the film.
However, while the portrayal of Mexican culture is a theme previously unexplored by Pixar, the studio still relies on an underdog trope to connect to their broad audience of both children and adults. As a result, the formulaic narrative structure is predictable.
The film also draws from Hollywood films like Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” which similarly focuses on a living man who finds himself stuck in the land of the dead, and Pixar’s own “Ratatouille,” a story about a rat who pursues his passion for cooking despite his family’s aversion to the culinary arts. Although Pixar put their own spin on the life and death tale, it still bears resemblance to previous animated films. However, “Coco’s” powerful emotional resonance, not the plot, is what distinguishes it from previous stories and ranks it among Pixar’s best.
“Coco” compensates for its narrative shortcomings with poignant insights into the intergenerational family dynamic and the commemoration of loved ones that will likely reduce even the most stoic film buffs to tears.