A word of advice from someone who’s been there to other empathetic souls out there: do not go see Pixar’s new grade-A adventure fantasy Coco immediately after attending services for a dearly departed family member. Some unmanageable side effects may occur.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in Mexico, a young boy named Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) showed musical promise, but was ordered by his all-shoemaker family to stifle it because of that one time his great-great-grandpa turned deadbeat to go pursue a mariachi career. By this time Footloose had not yet been translated into Spanish or taught them the drawbacks to banning catchy music forever. But Miguel’s passion is songs, not shoes, as he yearns to follow in the footsteps of his idol, erstwhile suave sensation Ernesto de la Cruz (Law & Order‘s Benjamin Bratt, with a far meatier part than he had in Doctor Strange). Miguel’s big break into the music biz suffers a strange setback when his attempt to borrow the wrong guitar takes a Twilight Zone turn and transports him into the Land of the Dead — a kaleidoscopic, infinite block party where death is almost the same as living except everyone is a skeleton. But Miguel isn’t even supposed to be there today, so he hopes the late, great Ernesto can save him — he has until sunrise to return to the Land of the Living or else he actually dies.
Helping guide his underworld journey is a merchandisable stray dog named Dante (subtly on-the-nose), as well as another dead musician named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal, excellent in Rosewater) who has his own reasons for visiting Ernesto. Hector’s personal problem ties in to the movie’s version of the Day of the Dead, in which the dead can visit the living only on that day each year, and only if their family keeps photos of them framed and on display in perpetuity. No photos, no entry. And if the family should eventually forget the deceased…things get worse.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The cast is almost entirely Hispanic/Latino and therefore possessing resumés that intersect with my experiences in woefully limited tangents, but the greatest among the ranks of the living characters would be Jamie Camil, a.k.a. the frequently dashing Rogelio from The CW’s Jane the Virgin, as Miguel’s unhelpful shoemaker dad. Cool trivia: Miguel’s uncle is Luiz Valdez, the director of the classic Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba.
Residents of the Land of the Dead include Alfonso Arau (the villainous El Guapo from Three Amigos!) as Miguel’s late great-granddad; Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Yo-Yo from Agents of SHIELD) as the late Frida Kahlo; and Alanna Ubach (Rango) is Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, the relative with the best reason to wish the worst upon his negligent great-great-grandfather.
Cameos include big-time comedians Cheech Marin and Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, as well as the token white guy of the bunch, Pixar’s favorite Easter egg John Ratzenberger as a traveling skeleton with dental work. The legendary Edward James Olmos has one scene as a forgotten old skeleton.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Family is very nearly everything in Coco, but only the family they choose to celebrate. Cultural traditions are pretty important as well, though they reserve the right to withhold blessings from blood-related offenders. Talent can be important, but talent is subject to approval from upper-level elders (in this case Miguel’s matriarchal great-aunt) who have the power to judge said talent worthless and order its suppression and shaming.
Miguel’s music issue is essentially a generational curse resulting entirely from the actions of one lowly, seemingly terrible male who prioritized fanciful career over his responsibilities as a husband and father. Miguel is ready to forgive and forget for his own selfish purposes, but the older relatives who were there, the ones who directly hurt and suffered because of those long-ago jerk actions, are not so quick to move on. Forgiveness isn’t impossible, but sometimes it’s not as easy as youngsters think it should be. If reconciliation is to happen, Step 1 is opening the lines of communication. If they won’t talk, you’re doomed. And the steps don’t end there.
At the center of it all is Miguel’s oldest living relative, the eponymous Mama Coco, written off as an incoherent crone just sitting in a corner till her time’s up. After a critical insight late in the game, Mama Coco reminds us our oldest relatives often have the keys to unlocking our greatest mysteries if only we would pay them proper attention and ask them the right questions.
Not to get too deep into spoilers, but the farther Miguel descends into his quest and the more secrets he unlocks, the more Coco should resonate with deafening echoes for fans and family of Bill Finger. On a related note, while some of the dead enjoy considerable more fame than others, not a single scene implies that fame without a family’s love is enough to sustain one’s afterlife.
For viewers all about the pretty visuals and/or explosions, Coco brings Pixar’s A-game as usual, with breathtaking animation all throughout the uniquely lit Land of the Dead. Little kiddos will love the rollicking rides provided by a few spirit animals that are the film’s minimal source of mandatory Disney wildlife, including a gargantuan flying tiger whose angry swooping and chasing are the closest things to a final boss battle that Miguel faces…but even the tiger isn’t exactly what it seems.
Nitpicking? Their version of Heaven isn’t exactly the Judeo-Christian version. All the dead hang out, party all night, have their own places to live, and can pretty much come and go as they please within their Land. Granted, their visitation schedule for non-dead relatives is painfully limited, but the rest of the year is theirs to rock on. Someone is even making and/or selling instruments on that side. Despite a few residents who committed serious sins in their lifetimes, we see no sign that anyone is barred entrance as long as they have living, loving family who still have the memories and pics to validate them. The worst transgression, the only one that sends them to an actual bad fate and gets them kicked out of Death Party Central, is to be totally and irrevocably forgotten, whether everyone who knew them chooses to forget or does so because they can’t help it. So to an extent, the Day of the Dead seems more of a heartwarming cultural heritage than a robust belief system.
So what’s to like? Did I say “heartwarming”? Also prepare for heartbreaking and tear-jerking, because the death-and-worse-death struggles build up to quite the emotional wallops, of the sort that director Lee Unkrich previously brought to the endings of Toy Story 3, where a top-talent ensemble also ultimately found themselves at odds with a fallen idol and the threat of oblivion. While Miguel continues to find power in music as he negotiates pain across five generations, he also acquires new appreciation for legacies, a deeper understanding of where he comes from, and youthful amazement at the power of treasured family photos to trigger buried memories.
I saw Coco on opening weekend, but had to give this entry some time to breathe because its last several minutes pretty much destroyed me. Rest assured a large family viewing of Coco over the coming holiday season would be a good way to root out the more uncaring members of your circles so you can begin diagnosing their major malfunction. After that, maybe go home and review the photos on your wall and give some deep thought as to who you really want to keep showcasing for all time.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Coco end credits, but rather the most apropos closing image possible: a collage of hundreds of photos of (presumably) the cast and crew’s deceased loved ones.
Moments before the collage is a special educational message (give or take a word): “The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition with roots in indigenous cultures. To learn more, visit your local library.” I love that because honestly, how often do major Hollywood films recommend libraries?