Coco is a bright and wonderful trailblazer of a film, so it will seem ironic when I tell you that much of its charm is the result of a return to the well for both Pixar and Disney. On the Pixar side, it seems that sequels have become the studio’s primary focus, expanding the marketability of its most celebrated properties rather than investing energy on telling original stories. For Disney, the pivot towards more sophisticated computer animation has resulted in a pivot away from the genial musical adventures of the studio’s hand-drawn heyday. Coco is like a convergence of what made both studios great, a gleeful fusion of bold originality and cozy tradition.
That synergy warmly extends into the film’s plot, which is all about the preservation of customs and rituals in the face of evolving and expanding ideas. Young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) lives in a quaint Mexican village with his tight-knit family, for whom togetherness and tradition are sacred, honoring their ancestors by continuing their way of life. In a cruel twist for Miguel, that includes a generations-old ban on music. There is an air of painful mystery to this shunning of the art form, one that Miguel finds frustratingly oppressive. His only saving grace is great-grandmother Coco, who even through increased senility seems to yearn for music-tinged childhood memories. Those are the hazy memories Miguel clings to as he carries on, tucked away in his room, strumming along to the chords of his long-deceased idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, like Antoine Doinel surreptitiously consuming Balzac.
In another strange parallel to Truffaut’s signature character, Miguel eventually stumbles into petty crime, albeit in as lighthearted a manner as possible. When the family discovers his musical secret and destroys his guitar, Miguel runs away from home to compete in a talent contest on the eve of Mexico’s annual Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration. In desperate need of an instrument, he pilfers de la Cruz’s legendary guitar from his memorial. But merely the act of playing a chord opens a gateway to the Land of the Dead, the brightly colored realm where deceased souls reside, anxiously awaiting the one time of year they can obtain passports to return to the land of the living: Dia de Muertos. Miguel gets caught between the two realms and must procure the blessing of one of his dead relatives in order to go back home, which would be easy enough…except the blessing comes with the condition that he gives up his passion for music.
If it seems like a labored set-up, that’s because of the obvious familial stringency, which is certainly unreasonable but opens a window into decades of pain that Miguel uncovers in his odyssey through the Land of the Dead. He teams with Victor (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), a scheming skeleton with dwindling family ties who claims he can help Miguel meet his musical inspiration de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt). In the Land of the Dead, the legendary musician has been elevated to something of a secular deity, and he may offer Miguel a path home without the anti-music condition.
The journey is both brightly fanciful and sometimes startlingly dark, the ever-present specter of death looming over the proceedings with a sort of sardonic kink. Yet still those are only the top layers, and Coco gradually probes through them to unveil the emotional complexity of its rich cultural and familial dynamics, graceful twists that actualize the family’s rejection of music even as we yearn for them to sing once again. It’s that unique combination of levity and depth that defines the best of Pixar, the willingness to engage a young audience but also challenge them, and expose all audiences to a world they haven’t seen before. In Coco, that world is a gorgeously imaginary but based fully on real Mexican culture and legend, portraying a cast and an environment as diverse as we’ve ever seen in mainstream animation. The story unfolds with a rollicking musical lunacy that harkens back to the days of Disney hand-drawn classics, a boundless sense of adventure where anything seems possible. That is where Coco truly sings: at the intersection of old-fashioned whimsy fused with progressive modernity.