Over the past twenty-two years, (the now-Disney-owned) Pixar Animation Studios’ feature film output has explored a wide variety of hidden worlds– the secret lives of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, cars, rats, superheroes, robots, emotions, and dinosaurs. But other than the high-flying California-to-South-America adventure “Up” and the Medieval-Scotland-set fantasy “Brave,” Pixar hasn’t spent much time examining real places and peoples.
Perhaps that’s because delving deeper into reality breaks one of Pixar’s foremost rules– only tell stories that can exclusively be told via animation. That’s why when we settle into the relatively grounded Mexican village of Santa Cecilia at the beginning of the studio’s latest breathtaking feature “Coco,” we know things will take a turn toward the immaterial sooner rather than later.
Like a North American retelling of Japanese mastermind Hayao Miyazaki’s monumental “Spirited Away,” “Coco” draws our young hero Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) from his stubborn, unforgiving living family and plops him into the Land of the Dead, where he promptly meets his stubborn, unforgiving deceased family. You see, Miguel wants to be a musician, and for reasons too complicated (and spoiler-ish) to go into here, music has been permanently banned from the Rivera household.
On the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Miguel angrily runs away from home and attempts to join the town’s performance festivities by stealing the enshrined guitar of a famous local musician, the also-expired Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). This act sets off a curse that sends the twelve-year-old to the other side prematurely, and sets him off on a quest to earn his family’s blessing to return to the world of the living.
To give anything more away than what I’ve already said is to ruin the bountiful surprises and vibrant delights that “Coco” has to offer. The Land of the Dead stands in great contrast to the world of the living– a towering vertical labyrinth of multicolored lights and twisting walkways, but both locales are rendered in mesmerizing detail. The story is twisty as well, and far darker than I had extrapolated from the half-hour I was shown during my visit to Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters earlier in the year.
Miguel encounters quite a bit of unpleasantness and difficult truths during his journeys, yes, but there is abundant joy to be found in “Coco” as well. Is it, after all, a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, and a tremendously emotional fable about learning to respect and honor one’s ancestors without necessarily having to adhere to traditions that don’t make sense for you personally. My screening of hardened, disenchanted film critics was left without a dry eye in the house, so I can only imagine what a tearjerker “Coco” will be for general audiences.
Director Lee Unkrich (“Finding Nemo”), along with co-director and co-writer Adrian Molina (“The Good Dinosaur”), have delivered something uniquely rich and rewarding into the marketplace of CGI animation– a movie that draws inspiration (via exhaustive research) from real-life culture and translates it into a vastly entertaining piece of commercial art.
Most importantly, however, for a movie set against the backdrop of a regional holiday– “Coco” feels universal. The film’s themes– namely family togetherness, uncovering ugly secrets of the past in order to better the future, and striving to find common ground among those who you otherwise disagree with– all reach beyond the movie’s Dia de los Muertos roots and ultimately mature the larger work into something accessible to audience members from a wide spectrum of backgrounds.
Special attention should also be payed to the movie’s music, with a moving score by Michael Giacchino (“Ratatouille”) and original songs by “Frozen” contributors Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez alongside composer Germaine Franco and (again) the multitalented Adrian Molina. Each tune is more toe-tappingly memorable than the last, and many Pixar fans will walk out of the theater wanting to immediately purchase the “Coco” soundtrack.
“Coco” is a perfect holiday movie for any family, and specifically a love letter to the beliefs and customs of our neighbors south of the border. It’s a story about love and acceptance and redemption, and I can’t imagine a better time for it to come into existence.
Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” opens next Wednesday, November 22nd, and will be preceded by the Disney animated featurette “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” at theaters nationwide.