While the masters at Pixar have rightly been lauded for their technical and storytelling prowess over the past 20+ years, they had fallen down on the job in portraying any significant minority characters. That is no longer the case, as they have jumped in with both feet with the Mexican tale Coco.
Set amid the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, the main character is not Coco, but Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of the Rivera clan. He loves music, especially that of his hero, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But a longstanding family bias against music means he must hide his passion.
Like many Pixar films, Coco leans heavily into the theme of family. Miguel’s family is loving but constricting, and he chafes at what he thinks are unnecessary restrictions. The family is ruled by the iron fist of Abuelita (Renee Victor), but it revolves around her mother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Coco’s musician-father left when she was young, thus beginning the family’s ban on music.
While trying to find a way to play his music in public, Miguel accidentally gets transported to the Land of the Dead. He receives help in getting back to the land of the living from a variety of long-dead family members; Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a kind-if-desperate soul on the verge of being forgotten; and even de la Cruz himself.
Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, working from a script written by Molina and Matthew Aldrich, do their best to educate the masses about the Day of the Dead tradition without getting bogged down in details. Still, they could have defined many of the elements more clearly, as only those already in the know will truly understand the meanings of certain things.
However, while Day of the Dead is an integral part of the plot, it’s not necessary to know all of its ins and outs to enjoy the film immensely. Miguel is the driving force, and his desire and determination are infectious. His interactions with other characters run the gamut from hilarious to melancholy, and they rarely strike a false note.
The visuals within the Land of the Dead are eye-popping — almost overwhelming, even. The animators let their imaginations run wild on this project, and that creativity shows up in everything from the shockingly different varieties of skeletons to the innumerable structures the world contains.
Due to the specificity of the plot, a connection to Coco likely will be felt more strongly by some than others. But its general story about the power of family is universal and fits right in with every other great movie Pixar has ever made.