When it comes to Pixar Animation Studios, it’s not just enough for them to come up with charming, low-impact confections like this summer’s “Cars 3;” animation aficionados and casual viewers demand to be transported. And it’s true, the best Pixar films are the ones that whisk you away – to a romanticized Paris where food is the ultimate currency (“Ratatouille“) or onboard a planetary spaceship inhabited by personable robots (“Wall-E“) or inside the human mind (“Inside Out“). Thankfully, “Coco,” Pixar’s latest original work and one of their very best, truly does transport you. The results are magical and feel somewhat rebellious given the current political climate, which makes the film feel even more special.
“Coco” centers on young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a twelve-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a musician like his idol, the long dead and Elvis Presley-like Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). The only problem is that his family has strictly outlawed music, thanks to the transgressions of a family patriarch a generation before. (This somewhat complicated back-story is effectively told through a series of cutouts.) Still, Miguel is determined to be a musician. He has made a makeshift studio for himself above the modest shoe factory, where he can practice and watch old movies of his hero. And on Dia de Muertos, the annual Day of the Dead, there’s a talent contest where he can make his big break. The only problem is that his guitar was destroyed and nobody will offer a replacement. So he sneaks into de la Cruz’s crypt and “borrows” his guitar. Only instead of granting him some newfound musical prowess, it sends him into a ghostly plane of existence.
From there, he travels to the colorful Land of the Dead, teams up with a fast-talking huckster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and (wait for it) learns a valuable lesson about idol worship and what is really important in life. This is one of those Pixar movies where, the less you know the better. It’s not terribly burdened by an abundance of plot but there are some great twists and turns, some genuinely shocking revelations, and, of course, a third act that will leave you crying big, unsightly tears.
If this general concept sounds risky, that’s because it is. One of the biggest surprises contained within “Coco,” and one that it’s okay to freely discuss, is how historically and culturally specific this movie is. There are whole swaths of dialogue in Spanish, sometimes without subtitles. Cultural and historical figures from Latin culture appear or are brought up; esoteric folkloric talismans become magical spirit guides (and major characters). It never feels, while you’re watching the film, like anything was watered down or simplified to appeal to a mass audience. Instead, it boldly revels in its very Mexican-ness.
And that’s part of what makes it so thrilling.
This is a movie that, while it was in production many years ago, feels like a bold opposition to what is going on politically and culturally right now. A foolhardy President who wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and who tweets out his appreciation for Hispanic culture by eating a taco salad is leading us. And it’s into this environment that Pixar, known for their peerless track record, unleashes a glorious celebration of all things Mexico, bolstered by the unstoppable might of the Walt Disney Company. Yes, it’s a big, populist piece of entertainment, beautifully told and sensationally rendered, but in the current political climate it feels like something more subversive and powerful.
Of course, the other thing that makes “Coco” such a kick to watch is how it looks. The artists and craftspeople at Pixar have always reveled in building these new worlds and it’s no different here. The Land of the Dead is a vast megalopolis; a colorful urban sprawl populated by skeletons that are decorated like sugar cookies and wear wigs to approximate their old selves. This isn’t some creepy underworld, but a vibrant, ramshackle world where alebrijes (brightly colored spirit animals) fly and race around and skeletal celebrities play giant concerts on the morning after Dia de Muertos. This being Pixar, there’s a story to everything you see, from the way that the houses are built into giant towers, starting with Mayan temples at the bottom and concluding with modern steel skyscrapers at the top, to the way that Miguel, after being trapped in the Land of the Dead, starts to disappear like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future.”
Instead of going with the super-photo-real aesthetic of “The Good Dinosaur” or portions of “Cars 3,” “Coco” fully leans into the surrealistic possibilities of animation. Everyone involved in the film is fully aware of the legacy of animated skeletons (from Walt Disney‘s “The Skeleton Dance” to the various stop motion works of Tim Burton) and are committed to adding to that legacy in new and exciting ways – with the painterly embroidery on the skulls to the wigs that the skeletons wear. It’s not just enough to top what has come before but, in keeping with the movie’s many themes, to contribute thoughtfully to what came before.
If director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina understand one thing, it’s that as amazing as the visuals can be, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. And, true to form, they come through in a big way. This is Pixar at its most nakedly emotional – not sentimental or saccharine – but heartfelt in a way that feels profoundly personal and also universal. They have dramatized an internal struggle faced by most families, blow it up to insane proportions, and then scaled it back to resonate in the most impactful way possible. In the past Pixar has found ways of making toys and fish and garbage robots bring tears to your eyes. Now they’ve done it with skeletons. [A]