The events of Coco take place on the Day of the Dead, when the veil between the living and the spirit world is the thinnest and the dead are able to see their living ancestors, though not the other way around. Using judicious and effective exposition, the film communicates these customs with the ofrenda, an altar in each household bearing the pictures of deceased family members. As long as a picture is on the ofrenda, then the dead spirit can visit. No picture, and the dead is stuck in the Land of the Dead, waiting until the day when no one still living remembers them and they fade away to nothing. Miguel bridges the two worlds by discovering a hidden picture in his family’s ofrenda, one with the same guitar in it that De La Cruz used during his career. Deducing that De La Cruz is his great-great grandfather, Miguel runs into a memorial to the star and steals the guitar, sending him into the underworld for theft from the dead. He can only return by getting a blessing from his dead family, which he gets from a skeletal Mama Imelda, but only on the condition that he stop playing music. Unwilling to make this trade, Miguel instead goes to get a blessing from De La Cruz, which he must get before sunrise or he’ll stay in the Land of the Dead forever.
As expected from Pixar, the visual imagery in Coco is entrancing and baffling in the amount of work it must have required. This time, instead of differentiated red hair or seamless water effects, the greatest care is taken in the seemingly endless depth of the Land of the Dead and in the petals that make up the bridge to it. Each glowing petal appears to be lovingly constructed, while the lights of the underworld look as if they go on forever. That level of specificity, of being able to single out one glowing light in a vast sea of them, merges the visual and the thematic. A candle glowing in the dark is evocative of each life lived in the Land of the Dead, an ember that’s kept glowing by remembrance amongst the living. It’s only corporeal love that keeps each flame from being snuffed out. This simple but potent metaphor powers Coco’s mythology while never becoming religious or hokey, an inclusive vision of life and death that can be enjoyed by any faith background.
Alongside the universality of Coco’s vision of the afterlife is the specific setting. This is a Latino lifestyle warm and enchanting enough to melt even Stephen Miller’s heart. Like Disney’s Moana, Coco gives a big-hearted and generous presentation of a culture far away from what’s usually presented in wide-release movies. There isn’t a single iota of laughing at Mexican mores. It has the same adoration for mariachi bands and Mexican wrestling that Miguel does. The colors, particularly in the Land of the Dead, are bright instead of garish, blending well with the high spirits of those in the Land of the Dead who are about to see their loved ones again. Coco is effortlessly respectful to its setting to the point that it inspires envy towards the rich traditions displayed onscreen.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixar film without the trademarks of the studio: content that challenges the kids in the audience and reduces the adults to blubbering messes. On the former, there is a darkness in Coco amongst the magentas and neons. There are skeletons of all ages running around the Land of the Dead, from the elderly to the toddling. Amongst the living, Miguel’s family’s no-music rule confronts the premise of rule-making in general. Despite the family’s modest success in shoemaking, the rule persists, becoming more important than the ramifications it might have on Miguel’s life and the lack of a specific kind of joy in the home. A crime that sets the events of the film in motion is also not sugar-coated, both in the monstrous act itself and in how it resonates through generations. All this establishment of the stakes and the themes comes to a head as the film reaches its climax, a point for the theater-going viewer where they can look around and see that, yes, everyone else is silently crying and wiping away tears.
As solid as Coco is, it wouldn’t work as well without endearing characters. Unkrich and Molina haven’t shirked in this arena, either. Miguel is a recognizable pre-teen, energetic and willful and motormouthed, especially around his mute great-grandmother who bears the same name as the film. Capable of passion both internal and external, he’s affectingly animated during scenes in his treehouse, deliberate in his adoration of De La Cruz and serene in how he closes his eyes when he gets lost in the music. Both his living and deceased elders are shown to be stern and direct while never losing a glint of love in their faces or body language. That this is true for skin-covered figures and skeletons in the Land of the Dead speaks to Pixar’s typical brand of minute detail. De La Cruz is believable as a magnanimous benefactor, and Gael Garcia Bernal’s Hector, a tramp that Miguel meets in the Land of the Dead, provides humor and pathos as a guide for Miguel. As the film is about reunions, so much of its power rests in creating characters worthy of spending time with them. Because the characters are lovable, those reunions are desperately wanted.
By virtue of the times we’re living in, it’s impossible not to see Coco as relevant to contemporary America in the spring of 2018. Fitting the aims of its protagonist, Coco is something of a musical, and its most potent song is Remember Me, a ballad entreating a daughter to not forget her father during a time of separation. That father leaves his beloved offspring to carve out a better life for himself and his family, but is kept from reuniting by circumstances beyond his control, wounding the larger family and radiating the pain of that distance far into the future. That the government of the United States has become the villain in a Pixar film is a tragic and shameful development. What is not shameful is the power of a major animation studio being dedicated towards broadening the cinematic cultural landscape. By showing legions of viewers the joy and beauty found in cultures outside of their own, Pixar’s doing what they can to make the world smaller and warmer at a time when it needs both. A