With Día de los Muertos becoming ever-more popular on this side of the border, the film Coco arrives right on time. Pixar finds a bridge between the cultural authenticity of the centuries-old Mexican tradition and its emerging commercial appeal through a heartwarming tale about the importance of family, told with respect to the people it honors.
Via an artfully done exposition on papel picado, we're introduced to the Rivera family, shoemakers by trade and keepers of a music-hating lineage. See, generations ago, a dashing musician left the matriarch and her daughter Coco behind in pursuit of his dreams. The original sin remains unforgiven ever since; the Riveras leave a family picture with his head ripped off atop the Day of the Dead ofrenda in their home.
Music still runs through the family's blood, even if it's repressed. Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) fashions a white guitar with the head decorated like a calavera, an imitation of the shimmering instrument of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). American audiences will liken the late De la Cruz to Elvis Presley, but his proper inspiration belongs to Mexico's great singers, including Antonio Aguilar, Pedro Infante and Javier Solís, who also graced the silver screen during the Golden Era of Mexican cinema.
Coco scores big laughs with culturally informed humor before exploring its emotional core. When the rambunctious 12-year-old shines the shoes of a mariachi, the musician lends him his guitar to play. But before Miguel can manage a strum, his abuelita arrives with a chancla she hilariously twirls with the skill of a ninja. With a big Day of the Dead talent show at the town's plaza, he sneaks into De la Cruz's mausoleum at night, where he takes his hero's famed guitar from its place perched above the tomb and is thrust into the Land of the Dead after a single, magical strum.
Miguel's deceased family finds him in the cemetery, where it's discovered he can return to the Land of the Living with a blessing upon a cempasúchil flower petal, one his great-great grandmother Imelda offers on the condition he forgo a life of music. Finding the Land of the Dead just as unforgiving, Miguel sets off in search of De la Cruz through the grand metropolis populated by skeletal souls. He meets Hector (Gael García Bernal) along the way, a likable trickster who claims to have known De la Cruz in his past life. Both race against time and surprising plot twists, with the twin dangers of Miguel turning into a skeleton and Hector fading from memory forever before Day of the Dead's end.
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Coco doesn't have a single political bone in its body. But in these Trump times, celebrating Mexican culture alone is activism. García even dedicated the film to children whose family members are being vilified by the White House. More subtly, not only will new audiences learn about Day of the Dead, but ones familiar with it already will feel at home, as well. The film is seamlessly bicultural. "¡No manches!" Miguel tells Hector during their adventures, a charming one-liner that's as surprising to hear as it is funny. And although Miguel is the lead character, he's supported by a strong family with an abuelita anchoring them all.
Four years ago, Coco didn't seem well-positioned to pull off the feat given that Disney, Pixar's benefactor, tried to trademark the phrase "Día de los Muertos" ahead of the planned film project. Petitions stormed online until Disney withdrew the filing and announced a name change for the film within hours. Controversy arose again when trailers for Coco revealed parallels between it and the 2014 animated film The Book of Life. Both celebrated Day of the Dead while centering on guitar-wielding protagonists, a similarity that proves to be surface level only.
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The only big drawback to Coco is that its standout song, "Remember Me," isn't memorable, especially for a film in which music is everything. The tune morphs from mariachi to lullaby, but for all the crossover appeal, it loses a bit of its emotional feel in English. "Remember Me" won't likely enjoy the lasting life of such other Pixar tunes as Toy Story's "You've Got a Friend in Me."
That aside, Coco clearly honors our ancestros. It's impossible to not feel grief wad in your throat when watching the skeletal afterlife of the film's Tío Oscar or Tía Victoria or to not think of your own loved ones long passed on. What emerges by the end is one of the best Day of the Dead tales since Mexico's own Macario, the country's first Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961. Coco is already Mexico's highest grossing film ever.
Beyond getting all the cultural cues right, Coco also finds the holiday's true meaning: Death doesn't come when we cease to breathe, but rather when we are forgotten by the living. It's a lesson for the ages.
Coco was directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina; written by Adrian Molina; and stars the voices of Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal and Anthony Gonzalez.