‘Coco’: Disney-Pixar’s Darkest, Most Beautiful Movie Yet

There were concerns about what the studio would do to cartoonize Mexican culture and history, but ultimately there is enough heart and respect to create something magical.

Some of the darkest ideas ever to manifest in a Disney-Pixar film take center stage in Coco, a movie that magically doubles as the studio’s most colorful, vibrant adventure yet.

The animation powerhouse’s 19th film brims with Pixar’s signature melancholy, imagination, and breathtaking visual invention. It’s also the first to star a protagonist of color, a charmingly gutsy Mexican boy named Miguel, and voiced by a majority Latinx cast.

It isn’t the first animated children’s movie of the last few years to do so, or to base its story on the Mexican traditions of Día de los Muertos (2014’s Book of Life beat it to the punch), but its heartfelt message about remembrance, its neon-colored whimsy, and its commitment to meticulously researched cultural authenticity make it one of the best this year—not to mention one of glaringly few instances of Hollywood representation that doesn’t require Mexican-Americans to cringe, settle for scraps, or turn a blind eye to tone-deaf stereotypes. 

It does come with caveats, however. There are startlingly frank ideas about death and loss detonating quietly in the midst of Coco’s slapstick, building to an emotional swell that triggers waterworks in that surefire Pixar way. But a bit too much of Coco’s story, in fact, relies on what Pixar is already known for. Certain through lines feel a bit copy-paste, hitting recognizable beats that veer on predictability. For a film that is otherwise groundbreaking, that’s a shame.

A hero is barred by society from pursuing their dream but, through the power of belief, self-actualization—and a healthy dose of Magic Feather Syndrome—they overcome. In this case our hero is 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, stellar in his feature debut), whose family has weathered a generations-long ban on music. That means no playing instruments, singing, or even associating with musicians. It’s weird. And a tough break for Miguel, whose greatest aspiration is, naturally, to take the stage and sing like his musical hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the “greatest musician of all time” who was smushed to death by a giant bell years ago.

The film’s opening sequence offers an inventive, if overlong, look back at the ban’s origins through animated papel picado. Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, an aspiring musician, abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and their baby daughter (the titular Coco) in pursuit of stardom. Left heartbroken and reeling, Imelda shut music out of her life, forbade her family from it forevermore and founded the shoemaking business Miguel is so desperate not to inherit.

He’d rather steal away and practice guitar in secret, hoping to enter his town’s talent contest on Día de los Muertos, a day of remembrance when families set up photos of departed relatives on ofrendas, thus (in the film’s version of the tradition anyway) allowing their spirits a one-night ticket to visit the living and pick up their offerings. Miguel learns the hard way what it means to cross your abuela on a family-oriented holiday (a Latinx kid rite of passage, basically) when she learns of his plans and smashes his only guitar.

Desperate to enter the contest anyway, Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s tomb and borrows his famed guitar. Somehow, the disturbance knocks Miguel into a realm where he can see the spirits of the dead—animated as bumbling, cuddly skeletons—and cross over to the dazzlingly colorful Land of the Dead.

It’s a long, laborious setup for the moment he sets foot there; 20 to 30 minutes of near-constant exposition. But the second he does, the film finally crackles to life, erupting into songs composed by Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (whose centerpiece song “Remember Me” is gorgeously rendered as both a corrido-style ballad and a gentle, heartbreaking lullaby) and kicking off a mystery-adventure about the identity of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather.

Miguel’s quest to secure a deceased family member’s blessing to return to his world and play music surfaces unexpectedly complex ideas. There’s a class system-like separation between spirits whose families still place their pictures on ofrendas and those who do not. Héctor (Gael García Bernal, impossibly charming even offscreen) is a spirit almost forgotten. As Miguel teams up with him to find de la Cruz, whom he’s convinced must be his ancestor, we learn saddening details of Héctor’s life after death.

He lives in a kind of shadow community under the bustling party-lit thoroughfares with other spirits barred from crossing over. His existence is defined by desperation—not only in his futile mission to sneak back to the land of the living for one night, but also in the knowledge that soon, when the last living person on earth forgets him, he will crumble into dust and cease to exist.

It’s a heavy concept for a kid’s movie, one we witness play out with another spirit. But it’s also what lends the film’s message about the value of holding onto memories, both good and bad, for the sake of preserving history its urgency.

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There’s even a strangely timely lesson about celebrity hero worship buried in Coco, touching on the terrible things beloved, successful people often do to get ahead. These insights are left half-baked in favor of circling back to the film’s central plot—reuniting Miguel with his family and reiterating his commitment to music—but they are at least glimmers of provocation accompanying all that stunning imagery. (The eye-popping, folk art-inspired alebrijes, magical creatures in the Land of the Dead, will emerge as fan favorites.)

For a film plagued by controversy from the start, however, Coco emerges relatively unscathed.

Disney blundered its way into the bad graces of Mexican-Americans with a 2013 attempt to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos,” then the working title for the film. It didn’t help that the only name attached to the project at the time was director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), a white guy from outside Cleveland.

Commendably, Pixar learned from the mistake. It promoted storyboard artist Adrian Molina, who penned the script, to co-director and cultivated a group of cultural consultants including Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz and playwright Octavio Solis. (Even now, on the eve of release, Coco is dogged by bad news: explosive allegations of misconduct against Pixar head John Lasseter, an executive producer on the film.)

Still, I’ll admit to feeling uneasy before watching to see how a real, complicated country full of real, complicated people—one half my family hails from—would be cartoonified and presented with the same gee-whiz wonder that Pixar usually reserves for unseen or fantastical worlds: oceans of talking fish, realms of monsters, societies of toys or rats or cars.

But exoticization, it turns out, is not the problem. The film’s version of Mexico is lovingly rendered and full of small nods to recognizable facets of everyday life. Characters slip in and out of Spanish in a way familiar to many Mexican Americans; close-knit multigenerational families are the norm. They even allude to an ingrained fear of our matriarchs’ chanclas.

And yet, it never quite comes fully alive—at least, ironically, not until after Miguel has crossed to the Land of the Dead. That the town-set chapters of the film are burdened with exposition might be one factor. But perhaps another is the over-familiarity of its setup, a standard-issue Pixar story template.

The film’s approach to Miguel’s forbidden love of music echoes the “you can do anything!” ethos of Ratatouille, Monsters University, Brave, and non-Pixar kids’ movies all over the map, from Kung-Fu Panda to Turbo. It is, by now, a bit trite.

Coco’s attention to detail shines brightest when the film delves beyond what Americans already most closely associate with Mexican culture (piñatas, pan dulce, Frida Kahlo) and spotlights under-recognized hallmarks like the country’s Golden Age of cinema, here reflected in black-and-white scenes starring de la Cruz, a singer and movie star modeled after mid-century icons like Pedro Infante, Javier Solis, and Jorge Negrete.

The film’s greatest moment comes when Miguel belts out the chorus to “Un Poco Loco,” a showstopper written in a folk musical style native to the state of Veracruz. (The most famous son jarocho example before this was “La Bamba.”) That is something more akin to specificity.

It’s in moments like that that the film buzzes to life and becomes something special—a memory worth passing down to the next generation.