Review: Pixar’s ‘COCO’ Is a Musical Delight

The animation studio’s latest is another technological leap forward and places an affectionate spotlight on Mexican culture.

Remember me / Though I have to travel far
Remember me / Each time you hear a sad guitar

The only moment that truly pulled me out of Coco came when it ended, and one of the first credits to appear was “Executive Producer John Lasseter.” The very recent news that the Pixar founder and Walt Disney Animation honcho had been added to the list of the industry’s serial predators is incredibly depressing, and I was worried as I brought my kids to the theater that I’d be too distracted by the events surrounding the film’s premiere to enjoy it, or give it a fair review.

Fortunately, one of the things that all the best Pixar films have in common — all films, really — is their ability to make you temporarily forget, and transport you to a world you haven’t seen before. And while it’s unfortunate that the Lasseter story has clouded what’s turned out to be one of their top-shelf releases, this is the last I’ll speak of him; the big story here is that directors Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina have delivered another patented Pixar knockout, overcoming early skepticism about cultural appropriation by telling a thematically heavy story with respect and the highest degree of craft.

Coco’s hero is the talented and mischievous Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, terrific), doomed to be a fifth-generation shoemaker for the Rivera family; once upon a time, his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue fame, and a hatred of musicians has been passed down the decades until it has become as natural as breathing — most bitterly by Miguel’s abuelita (Renee Victor), who’d sooner hit a mariachi with her chancla than listen to one. Unfortunately for Miguel, he also has a natural gift for music, as well as a secret obsession with their town’s most famous resident, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, charming).

The Elvis of his day, de la Cruz infamously died on stage in a freak church bell accident, leaving behind a beloved catalog of love songs and film appearances. The story really kicks off when Miguel finds evidence that de la Cruz himself was his ancestral deadbeat dad, and, after illicitly “borrowing” the singer’s guitar for a performance, finds himself accidentally drawn into the colorful Land of the Dead (along with his lovable/hideous street dog, Dante). From there, it’s the quest of Miguel finding his way back home, as well as putting together the pieces of the mystery that has long plagued his family. He is both helped and hindered by his own ancestors, as well as by the trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who needs someone in the real world to place his photograph on their mantle (or ofrenda) so he can make his annual visit.

Hector becomes Miguel’s guide in this fluorescent underworld, and tells us the rules of its operation. There are two looming threats: first, if Miguel doesn’t get home by sunrise, his transformation into a skeleton will be complete and permanent; second, there’s the fear of the inevitable “second death,” when those on the other side have forgotten you entirely, and you disappear from existence in a puff of orange sparkles. It’s perhaps the most existentially bleak a Pixar film has ever been. But Hector and Miguel make an entertaining pair, especially when given the opportunity to perform one of de la Cruz’s signature comedic duets; only one, however, can use his own bones as props, or the jig will be up. I only regret that more of the film’s characters weren’t granted the same dimensionality; the cast is a who’s-who of Latino film and television stars, but most are only here to serve as plot mechanisms.

The design is perhaps Coco’s strongest element, with the Land of the Dead and its inhabitants all vibrantly rendered (especially the folklore-inspired Alebrijes, used here as spirit guides); they may be skeletons, but this isn’t the macabre of Tim Burton, or even the exaggerated angularity of the similarly-themed The Book of Life. Around every corner, the frame is positively bursting with appealing color and detail, digitally lensed with bleeding-edge computing power. The depth in the wide shots is staggering, but I audibly gasped at the photorealism of an underground pool. That level of artistry shows itself at every stage of production; Michael Giacchino’s score is excellent (and watch for his cameo as a boney conductor), as are the songs from the Frozen team of Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The main ballad, “Remember Me,” makes several appearances, but taps into different emotions each time.

Not that it all isn’t formulaic, mind you. The storytellers at Pixar have their art nearly down to a science, and there are plenty of beats in Coco that will ring familiar: Miguel finds his gifts at odds with the desires of his family, like Ratatouille’s Remy; there’s a ticking clock like the one in Inside Out, as characters race to avoid a similar fate; there’s the idea that meeting your heroes never goes how you expect, which was memorably played in Up. Most of all, the studio’s hallmark has been grappling with mortality. It’s the thread that weaves through nearly all of their projects — the incinerator of Toy Story 3, the prologue of Finding Nemo, Up again — but never so front-and-center as it’s deployed in Coco. Then again, the film was originally called Dia de los Muertos, the subject of an unwise and entirely avoidable trademark dispute, so it was nearly right there in the title.

As successful as the film is in a vacuum (“Just the right amount of obvious,” as Miguel says to Frida Kahlo — yes, that Frida Kahlo), the fear going forward for Pixar is that it’s lost that spark of originality, and all it can do now is crib from itself. Nevertheless, the studio’s efforts to slow-roll Coco’s production for the sake of authenticity, enlisting early detractors as cultural advisors, has paid enormous dividends. Living in South Texas, I don’t have enough hands to count the close friends who will rejoice at seeing their stories represented on screen, and the record-setting box office in Mexico backs that up. Whatever happens next for Pixar, Coco will live on in the hearts of not just a long-underserved audience, but for anyone who sees it.

Coco is preceded, unusually, by a short from parent company Disney: “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” It’s exactly what you’d expect, but far too long. 15 minutes of trailers and 30 minutes of TV special-quality Olaf is a lot to ask of younger kids, so plan your bathroom breaks in advance.

Updated Pixar Rankings:
1. Ratatouille
2. Toy Story 2
3. The Incredibles
4. Monsters, Inc.
5. Inside Out
6. Wall-E
7. Up
8. Toy Story 3
9. Finding Nemo
10. Toy Story
11. Coco
12. Finding Dory
13. A Bug’s Life
14. Monsters University
15. Cars 3
16. Cars
17. Brave
18. The Good Dinosaur
19. Cars 2

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