The story concerns Miguel, a young Mexican boy who has music in his heart even if it’s not in his family. The Rivera family has prided themselves on being pro-shoes and anti-music since his great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue a career in music. Generations of Riveras have grown to despise this man so much his name was never spoken and his photo was never shown, ripped out of family portraits. This doesn’t stop Miguel from pursuing his dreams, especially with the prospect that he might be the descendant of the famed Mexican singer/celebrity Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Adhering to Ernesto’s old saying of seizing the moment, Miguel goes the extra effort to playing guitar in a talent show by stealing Ernesto’s legendary guitar from his place of burial. This brings about a curse where Miguel finds himself trapped in the Land of the Dead, the world where all spirits live out their days as skeletons. There’s a lot exposition to this plot, but here’s all you need to know. Miguel has to make it back to the land of the living by sunrise or he’ll be forever dead. The only way to get back is to receive the blessing of his dead family members to go back, but they only agree to send him back if he renounces his love of music. Ernesto would understand Miguel if only he could find him, if he’s actually his relation and if he’d actually be willing to send him back.
Accompanying Miguel on his journey is Hector (Gael García Bernal), a huckster of an individual who just wants to see his family in the land of the living. Souls can’t cross over on the Day of the Dead to visit their loved ones unless a photo of them has been placed in tribute. If too many years pass, they are forgotten and pass on into the next world, as revealed in one of the film’s most tragic scenes of a skeleton soul slowly drifting off into forgotten oblivion. Heavy stuff, but, hey, death is rarely a ride.
Coco isn’t the first to attempt an animated depiction of what lies beyond after the Day of the Dead. The most recent example being the animated movie The Book of Life and a later one being the noirish video game Grim Fandango. But Coco easily avoids any negative comparisons by featuring a story that is more focused, emotional and wondrous. You need only look at how The Book of Life took a chaotic and frenetic approach to the land of the dead, literally treating this realm like a rollercoaster at times. Coco finds more to it themes of the afterlife than just the colorful, not afraid to twist a story with family drama and deceptive murder that cuts deep.
Then, of course, there’s the moment that blindsides the viewer with enough emotional weight to crush your jaded heart. I can’t talk about it too in-depth without revealing the shocking twist of it all, but there’s one scene in particular that crushes with cuteness, music and a family bond. That combination was brutal when I first saw it at the press screening and even more heartbreaking when I saw it a second time. And just when you think you’re out of the woods, the film presents ANOTHER emotionally-moving moment that will make you cry if you haven’t already.
The world of Coco is one of the most astounding achievements of computer animation. Take note of how many structures and lights there are in the land of the dead when Miguel first crosses over from the bridge of flower petals. The neon designs of the spirit animals the help souls come together are a nice touch to this fiesta nightlife palette, from a ferocious griffin to a silly dog with tiny wings. The skeleton citizens of the land of the dead are also pretty unique for being nothing but bones, utilizing nearly every part of their body for some form of expression. Hector is the most fun to watch as the scrappy and resourceful skeleton that can rearrange his limbs to do anything from dance a jig to reach someplace high by slingshotting his arm bones towards a window. Another figure the movie has a lot of fun with is Frida Kahlo, whether she’s designing over-the-top stage art or being mimicked by others to get into fancy events.
With a film like The Book of Life existing, there’s once more a chicken versus egg situation of which came first, considering both were in development for several long years. It doesn’t matter who thought up the idea first or if it was stolen; Coco is the clear winner. It’s a film that refuses to talk down to its audience, serve up leftover animation styles or go for the easy direction of music and melodrama. There’s a freshness and timeless quality that touches deeply for any parent. But is this maybe a little too dark for kids? Perhaps, but most of the kids at the screening seemed to really dig this movie. They had to sit through quite the rulebook for the land of the dead, but once they make it over the hump, there’s a fun, charming and powerful story to be told. Will it all resonate with kids now? Perhaps not, but it’s something special that they can carry with them when they get older.
It’s far too fitting that Coco was released on Thanksgiving, a holiday of thankfulness and togetherness. Here is a film that is about just that with a theme more central and a heart quite bold. Some may argue that it should have been released on the actual Day of the Dead considering its cultural significance and that might have been fine. But for something to watch with the family over Thanksgiving break, parents couldn’t have asked for a better film. This isn’t just the best animated film of the year (a low bar to cross); this is one of the best films of the year period.
P.S. Included in front of the film is a 20-minute short, Olaf’s Holiday Adventure. It’s a pleasing addition of Frozen content before the inevitable and long overdue Frozen 2, but its length and subject felt better suited for television than a preceding short. Still, it’s worth it for the knowing jabs Olaf makes at holiday traditions, from the resilience of fruitcake to the dressing of a tree corpse for Christmas.