Coco was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I went to see it with three friends, and none of us had seen a trailer – which we had all taken to mean Disney had not really invested a lot with it. When the credits played and the light came back on, dry eyes were a minority in the theatre, but every set of tears was matched by a warm smile.
The film recounts the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy of twelve whose great-great-grandfather left his wife and daughter, Coco, to pursue his musical aspirations. His action caused Miguel’s great-great-grandmother to forbid her descendants from ever playing music, and set out on her own to make a name for herself as a locally renowned shoemaker, eliminating all traces of her life with her husband down to cutting out his head from their family photo. Four generations later, her great-great-grandnephew Miguel is forced to hide from his family is passion for music, inspired by his repeated viewings of the films and shows of “the greatest musician in the world,” Ernesto de la Cruz.
On the Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead – Miguel stumbles upon what could be an important clue regarding the identity of his great-great-grandfather, and, excited, announces to his family he will play in the city’s talent show that same night. His grand-mother Elena however is resolute not to let him pursue dreams that will lead him to desert his family and smashes his guitar. Hurt and angered, Miguel runs away, still intentioned to participate in the talent show. His desperate search for a guitar results in him being transported into the world of the dead, where the deceased survive as lively skeletons for as long as they are remembered. To go back to the living world without giving up his aspiration, Miguel will have to find his great-great-grandfather and earn his blessing before sunrise. To help him in his quest will be Hector, a skeleton about to be forgotten, and the street dog Dante.
Coco is full to the brim of tenderness and love without lapsing into the pathetic, and built on a solid, gripping narrative. The sense of urgency never gets in the way of heartfelt emotion, which in turn does not bog down the plot. The film keeps the audience guessing with twists and red herrings, and even when there is nothing left to discover, it remains an incredibly fun journey into a hauntingly beautiful land. The two distinct color palettes, contributing to setting the world of the living apart from the world of the dead, make Coco a veritable visual feast. It is also a respectful one, because Mexican culture is not invoked solely as a source of spectacle. Institutions and traditions are vibrant with life and accessible to all manners of viewers, but not reduced to banality. Aldrich and Molina’s script is particularly sensitive to a matriarchal, extended family that may not be part of the experience of European audiences, but that is nonetheless presented in an absolutely positive light as an equally valid alternative model to the nuclear one.
Despite the plot echoing the classic “child dreams, parents forbid” structure we are all well accustomed to, the journeys taken by Miguel and his family run parallel to each other. Over the course of the film the two come to a deeper level of mutual understanding, defusing those differences that separated them and reworking previous boundaries and assumptions. It is not ambition or the willingness to break free from conventions to “seize the moment” that constitutes the crux of the film, but the realization that traditions are expression of bonds that need not be done away with or rigidly enforced in any one form to fulfill one’s goals or create unity. Even mourning the dead is revealed to be capable of bringing the living closer and being experienced as a communal activity that strengthens a community’s (and especially a family’s) cohesion, with a gentle streak of wistfulness that prevents loss from being reduced to a colorful show.
But Coco is, after all, a musical. So what about the songs? Evenly matched with the vocal performances of several actors, they are stunning, and profoundly different from anything you’ve heard in a Disney film before. All of them are also justified by the plot, with no character transitioning from speech to music unless the narrative circumstances create a reason for it. More entertaining and emotional than Brave, more uplifting than Kubo and the Two Strings, and infinitely less dark than The Corpse Bride, Coco is a wonderful, heart-warming tale in which remembrance, ambition, and the importance of bonds and understanding overlap majestically in a film that deserves to become an instant Pixar classic.