Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old aspiring musician and devoted fan of the “world’s greatest musician,” the late, great Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Trouble is, his family doesn’t approve. In fact they have a generations–old ban on anything musical stemming from Miguel’s great-great grandfather, a guitar player who chose music over his young family. They are, we’re told, “the only family in Mexico who hates music.” Still, Miguel can’t let his dream of making music go. He studies de la Cruz’s films and records, learning them note-for-note.
In his village Day of the Dead celebrations are being prepared. Photos of loved ones are placed on altars in hopes that relatives who have passed into the spirit world will come back to visit and enjoy the festivities.
In the village square a talent show draws a huge crowd. Miguel is desperate to perform, but needs a new guitar. Keeping the words of his hero in mind—Don’t let anything stand in your way!—he breaks into de la Cruz’s ornate crypt to steal the late singer’s guitar when something strange happens. Guitar in hand, he finds himself transported to the colourful Day of the Dead spirit world just in time to attend de la Cruz’s spectacular show. If he can get de la Cruz‘s blessing he can go back to the world of the living and be a musician but first he must learn the real story behind his unusual family history.
“Coco” is packed with music but it isn’t a musical. Characters don’t suddenly burst into song. Instead, the songs—and there are a few of them—are set pieces, deftly woven into the fabric of the story. The stand-out tune, “Remember Me,” written by the “Frozen” team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, is heard throughout and used particularly effectively in the film’s tear-jerking finale.
Miguel’s love of music is the film’s McGuffin, the thing that drives the story, but “Coco” is more about the importance of family. Pixar has found a way to embroider a familiar kid’s movie motif with deeper messages about remembrance and the passing of time.
“Finding Nemo” and “Bambi” aside, mortality is not a big topic in children’s movies. “Coco,” however, embraces it; weaving an interesting story that toggles back-and-forth between the land of the living and dead. It celebrates the vibrancy of the Día de los Muertos celebrations, complete with skeletons in dazzlingly costumes and sugar-skulled characters aplenty that are kid friendly in a “Nightmare Before Christmas” kind of way. “The Walking Dead” this ain’t.
Visually “Coco” is spectacular. Whether it is the intricately realized skeleton characters or the perfect sheen on the water Miguel dives into, once again Pixar proves to be ahead of the pack in terms of bringing pixels and terabytes of information to imaginative life.
“Coco” is a heartfelt tribute to Mexican culture but more than that it is a universal story about the importance of family that is heartfelt but never saccharine.