It takes a lot for one to concede that Pixar might just be showing off at this point, but to call their latest, Coco, anything short of a technical and emotional achievement seems fairly insulting. Practically flaunting its beauty in your face with scene upon scene of breathtaking color, vivid design and mind-blowing scope, their tribute to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the rich Mexican culture and mythology that houses it ranks up there with some of Pixar’s most impressive feats. That’s immense praise given the company’s history; the lively (and technically “deathly”) second solo feature by in-house director Lee Unkrich pretty much one-ups the emotional maturity and soul-warming eye candy last seen on display in the likes of Inside Out.
Unlike Inside Out, where the film was structured around the interior of its protagonist, Coco builds its world around the family traditions of Miguel Rivera, a young aspiring musician of the meticulously detailed fake village of Santa Cecilla. His dreams of enriching the world with his music despite his family’s objections propels him to the gorgeously realized Land of the Dead to find the blessing of Ernesto De La Cruz, the world’s former most famous musician.
While seemingly arbitrary in what propels its story forward, with its plot hinged on coincidences and convenient turns of luck, Coco truly shines when it takes its time to breathe in the color it cultivates in its imagining the afterlife – where skeletons dance to the songs their families sing to them, garishly colored Alebrije guide spirits through the sprawling decaying metropolis and a bridge of flower petals connects the living world to the great beyond. That spark of wholesome creativity that is oh-so Pixar fills this world full of wonder for all ages, but it’s the messaging found within that puts Coco head and shoulders above its competition.
Where Inside Out indoctrinated children into their existence as variable emotional beings, Coco broaches the topic of mortality with a tact that leaves its lessons digestible and heartwarming. Caught at a parallel between the mores of family tradition, cultural tradition and his own fantasies, Miguel navigates the realities of the afterlife and the dread of passing with a touching maturity and understanding that leads praise both to the voice cast and the sharp script. Equal parts sobering and ebullient, Coco can be both a celebration of the highs of life and a solemn reminder of its precious brevity.
I’m sure that sounds like a lot to heap onto the impressionable mind of a child, but it is because of films like Coco, Inside Out and Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings that the next generation has the best chance of a fully realized emotional intelligence through exposure to cinema. Besides, with its adorable dog sidekick and plethora of skeletal-based physical comedy, the movie never lets its sense of depth cloud its ability to delight.
As Miguel and his boney sidekick, Hector, navigate the Land of the Dead, we are treated to one of the more unforgettable soundtracks to accompany them as they go, courtesy of veteran composer Michael Giacchino. Mixing salsa, bolero, flamenco and good old fashioned mariachi, Coco achieves a distinction of culturally-specific timelessness with its score that played to greater effect with the audience than the inane Frozen sing-a-along that unfortunately accompanied the screening. Heavy on flourishing guitars and hammering brass, it’s an infectious collection of tunes that you will undoubtedly download once you leave the theater.Long after whatever that Frozen snowman was singing about in the tortuous preceding short has faded from your memory, Coco‘s score will be there to lift your spirits once again.
Whether or not Pixar has portrayed the culture that it reaps the beauty of with accuracy and respect is not for me to say, of course, but even from an outsider’s position, the particular Mexican aesthetic seems rendered with careful authenticity. Far removed from the days The Three Caballeros (1944) and Saludas Amigos (1942), where Disney couldn’t even have bothered to hide their use of Mexican culture as cheap exoticism and vacation fodder, Coco is an absorbing experience that earns that uniquely South-of-the-Border feel through its unapologetic commitment to its premise.
From the unmistakable vibrant colors that adorn its fully realized characters (all played by real Spanish-speaking actors) to the soundtrack bursting with guitar-plucking, toe-tapping flavor, Pixar surprises nobody through its unwillingness to compromise and to let Coco stand out as the one-of-a-kind film that is (although it begs the question of why such a cultural touchstone would need a 21-minute lead-in by the “whitest” of Christmas specials in the grating Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, but I digress).
Regardless of its potential cultural missteps that may be invisible to an outsider appreciating from afar, respectful representation and visibility to any capacity is a step in the right direction. This step should have been made long ago and taken primarily by the culture depicted, but Coco can only delight and educate and in its veritable uproar of eye-popping, tear-jerking beauty; that nail is hit squarely on the head. Pixar is so ahead of the game when it comes to technical innovation and affective storytelling that they seem only capable of competing with themselves (Kubo notwithstanding).