Miguel, a preteen in Mexico, goes on a journey to discover more about his family, death and following his dreams. He wants to play music, but his family forbids it. Día de los Muertos arrives, and a mishap with a guitar snatching makes Miguel transcend the barrier from the living to the dead. He travels to the Land of the Dead and goes on an adventure to seek a blessing from a family member, hoping to both return to the land of the living and continue playing music.
“Coco” is a well-crafted tale with heart and style that honors its Mexican cultural setting. It takes its place in Pixar’s crown of star productions, but it has a few flaws that keep it from shining as brightly as it could.
Part of a Pixar film experience is enjoying the short before the film. Last year’s fun sequel “Finding Dory” got the Oscar-quality “Piper” short, but the original and dynamic “Coco” was left with reheated “Frozen” leftovers. The schmaltzy themes of Christmas, traditions and families were accompanied by boring music. Nobody wanted more of clumsy Olaf or Anna and Elsa singing about being sisters in the castle, but “Coco” got the short end of the stick.
Now that we’ve covered before the movie, let’s dive into the world of talking skeletons and following dreams. ‘Coco” is a world of color and culture that never feels garish or cliché.
The music is fun and works well, but it seems to be falling short of its full potential. Great Mexican music is frequently featured in the background and under the spotlight. The main song, “Remember Me,” is a sweet lullaby. It works for tying characters together in the film, but as the film’s main musical offering, it feels a bit lightweight. Considering the songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, won an Oscar for “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” the music of “Coco” could use some more splendor.
The visuals are excellent. The opening sequence cleverly uses papel picado, colorful paper cutouts, to give a setting and backstory. The skeleton characters are designed effectively expressive, even down to the way they awkwardly wear clothes on their bony frames. The alebrijes, animal spirit guides, are eye-catchingly brilliant with glowing neon highlights. Pepita, the winged panther alebrije, is fearsomely gorgeous but sadly not often on-screen.
Oddly, though, the colors are muted in most scenes. Especially in the land of the dead, blue shadows darken even the brightest colors. One exception is the brilliant orange marigold petals, or cempasúchil, that make up the bridge for the dead to visit their living families.
“Coco” has great character development. Miguel, following the hero’s journey to pursue his dreams, does suffer a bit from predictability, but “Coco” does well to balance it out with a fun and twisting plot as the protagonist winds his way through the Land of the Dead. Dante the xolo dog is goofy without being distracting. Hector, who Miguel meets in his quest to find his father, starts as a trickster but grows to be a favorite. Miguel’s family is full of genuine and interesting characters.
Unfortunately, Pixar once again returns to its noted reluctance to give female characters significant screentime. Out of Pixar’s 19 released feature films, only three feature a female protagonist, and only a handful more have women or girls as main characters. Miguel gets the majority of the screentime, sharing it mostly with Hector and Dante. Women in Miguel’s family pop in occasionally to scold him, but they remain supporting characters. Even the film’s namesake, Miguel’s great-grandmother, gets only a handful of lines. Pixar is becoming more diverse by featuring a Mexican family, as all human main characters have been white until “Coco.”
Pixar once again tells a story that leaves us wondering if it’s really children they are aiming to entertain, much like how “Up” and “Wall-E” did. There are jokes scattered throughout “Coco,” but it’s far from jovial. The story of Miguel’s race against the clock to seek a blessing from a family member gets increasingly complicated with matters of crime, ancestry and even intellectual property rights.
The most powerful part of the movie is the ending. “Coco” confronts loss in a powerful way we haven’t seen in a Pixar film since “Up” brought us the story of Carl and Ellie. “Coco” deals with death using a frankness and fullness rarely seen in any children’s movie. The celebration of Día de los Muertos is a way for even the youngest to relate to the passing of their loved ones. “Coco” shows how, in Mexican culture, mourning is part of a structure in life. There’s a symbolic and ceremonial aspect that allows for grief and celebration of the life lived. America’s tendency to let people grieve in their own way after the funeral seems hands-off and neglectful in comparison.
“Coco” does a beautiful job building bridges between the viewer and the heavier themes of death, featuring a great adventure story and remarkable visuals. It’s not as fun as it could be for a children’s movie, but still draws a great deal of enjoyment from viewers of all ages. 4.5 out of 5 stars.