For years, Pixar has wanted to make a film centered around the popular Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which begins on Halloween and continues until November 2nd. It's a holiday that, when contrasted to American customs, presents a stark difference in the way Americans and Mexicans view their late relatives. In America, death is commemorated in an individualistic sense, with the anniversary of a loved one's passing maybe prompting a trip to their gravesite or a small family get-together in their honor; wakes and funerals that take place shortly after a death are usually somber affairs where emotions flood a church like a broken reservoir.
In Mexico, Día de Muertos is more of a celebration than a mournful event. It's a time when families commemorate the lives of their lost relatives by celebrating their accomplishments, life-experiences, and legacy through pictures, decorative skulls, and pictures and tangibles on an "ofrenda" or mantle to capture the person's memory. It's a beautiful display that fascinates me as well as director Lee Unkrich, who spent years researching the holiday and Mexican customs to encapsulate such rich history in an appropriate film.
Coco is an animated film filled with as much spirit and life as the holiday it so thoughtfully honors, and its legacy will be one to remember as it is sure to captivate Pixar's loyal fanbase, as well as others, in a different way than other such favorites. It's visually different from the company's other films, and its recognizable themes of family are deeply ingrained in cultural customs and folklore rather than blanket morality. It's likely to give those who feel underrepresented in animated films a deep sense of belonging. It's cut from the same cloth as Pixar's Brave, which subverted the female heroine by giving her a conflict that didn't revolve around a man. If Pixar has proven one thing this decade, even after a few forgivable misfires, it's that they can appreciate without appropriating and respect differences without pandering or resorting to tired stereotyping.
Coco's central focus is on a twelve-year-old named Miguel Riviera (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with his large family in Santa Cecilia and all of whom work at their family-owned zapateria (shoe-store). Miguel loves playing guitar and idolizes Ernesto de La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a Mexican singer-songwriter of the 1930s, who was killed when a huge church-bell crushed him at one of his concerts. He has to hide his love for music from his family members ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to pursue his dreams of stardom. Meanwhile, his great-grandmother, "Mama Coco" (voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguía), still lives with his family, but sits largely in silence in her elderly age.
After a fight that leads to Miguel's secret love being revealed to his family, he rushes into Ernesto de La Cruz's mausoleum to grab his guitar only to be transported to the Land of the Dead. The Land of the Dead is a dimension for those who have passed on, all appearing as skeletons, waiting for their spirits to "cross over" on Día de Muertos. They can only cross over if their current living loved-ones place their pictures on their respective ofrendas. Miguel bonds with a slinky skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal) upon finding out an incredible family secret that will soon unravel more.
The Land of the Dead is one of the most beautifully rendered locations in any Pixar movie. A brief clip shown before Coco during its American theatrical release has Unkrich and several animators talking about the labor-intensive yet rewarding process of getting the lighting and the animation precise during the filmmaking process. At one point in the film, when Miguel looks out into the Land of the Dead, where canted structures with lights (and several hidden skulls) flood his field of vision, there are apparently eight and a half million orbs of light and frames active during that one particular moment. There's no telling how many lights are glowing during climactic moments of Miguel riding on a green-lit winged-creature or during more controlled moments when him and Hector are simply strolling through the afterlife.
Pixar has progressed so much this year in a visual sense that even their lesser projects have proven to be something of a marvel. Cars 2 was an early showcase of their attention-to-detail with light, as was Monsters University, while The Good Dinosaur and Toy Story 3 (the directorial debut of Unkrich) showed how awe-inspiring their animating team was at creating singularly enthralling environments. Coco finds itself a cornucopic collection of all of these evolved skills for an animated studio that never sits still when it comes to technical advancements.
Coco's respect for culture should not be dismissed easily, as it doesn't shortchange the emotional power behind Día de Muertos or ideas about life and death. Consider the character of Hector, who fears, somewhat in part to details I dare not spoil, that he'll soon be dead "for real," as there will be no one left alive to carry his memory. He suggests an idea I'm not sure many contemplate and that is, despite a lack of a physical presence, you're only really dead when there is no one left alive who remembers you nor is able to carry on your legacy. This is a heavy, partly scary concept that the film's writers (Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich) sensitively handle but also effectively communicate through Hector, an initially skeevy character that becomes lovable after a few earnest moments.
While the film might not have the emotional subtlety of some of Pixar's finer efforts, Coco has one of the best rising actions and third-acts of any of the studio's great films. The last twenty-five minutes are lovingly handled, emotionally successful and capped off by an inspiring ending that neatly ties everything up — a laudable feat for a film like this, which is about so much.
Coco shows that Pixar's ode to Día de Muertos was worth the wait, as the final-product is good enough to be the favorite film of many young ones as well as a comforting inspiration to them. It's a film you feel speaks to the unspoken to in a way they're not used to films doing. Moreover, there is validity to pundits and analysts saying that films like Cars 3 and the upcoming Incredibles 2 are safety-nets that provide Pixar with the finances and comfort to make "riskier" movies like Coco. However, judging by the reception and my theater's fullness, which really culminated upon the film's conclusion, with a rousing round-of-applause and chatty kids expressing their love for what they just saw, there's reason to believe that we're coming to a point where films like Coco won't be much of a risk at all, assuming they ever were.
NOTE: On an external, moviegoing note, prepare to be in for the long-haul if you're seeing Coco in theaters. Besides being preceded by the usual twenty minutes of trailers, attached to the beginning of the film is a criminally misplaced, twenty-two minute short called Olaf's Frozen Adventure based on the hit Disney movie Frozen. Save for a terrific song by the titular snowman Olaf, it's a short that would've been better suited for an ABC special ala recent "Cars toons" and Toy Story Halloween shorts. It also bloats a theatrical experience to a length that might drive kids batty enough to grow restless by the home-stretch of the feature presentation. Proceed with caution.
Steve's Grade: B+Share: