But could it be that de la Cruz was in fact Miguel’s long since written-off great-great-grandfather? That certainly appears to be the case. So in order to participate in a music competition on Día de Muertos, Miguel “borrows” de la Cruz’s famous guitar, his own having been smashed earlier in the day by his grandmother. But with the very first strum, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead. There, he meets departed members of his own family and ultimately, with the help of a trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), de la Cruz himself.
Directed by longtime Pixarian Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the tale that unfolds from these beginnings is not terribly innovative (less so, for instance, than 2014’s similarly themed though less well-realized The Book of Life). But it is a tale told with considerable wit—this is one of Pixar’s funniest films—and genuine tenderness. There are a few nice twists and reversals along the way. And while the movie’s conclusion is not difficult to see coming, anyone whose heart is not warmed by it may wish to consult with an cardio-therapist.
Befitting its subject, this is the most musical feature yet produced by Pixar, with songs co-written by Robert Lopez, of The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, and Frozen fame. There are clever pop-cultural nuggets scattered throughout: a Mac Plus that is condemned as a “devil box” and smashed with a shoe; a gatehouse between the lands of the living and the dead that bears a distinct resemblance to the entrance to Disneyland; a hilariously avant-garde stage show put on by a deceased Frida Kahlo.
But where Coco shines most brightly—literally—is in its vibrant visuals, which rely on a palette of fluorescent greens, blues, yellows, and oranges. In this telling, the Land of the Dead is not a fearsome place, but rather a never-ending skeleton party conducted in a glorious multi-tiered city that rises from sea-level houseboats to vast, imperious towers inhabited by celebrities such as de la Cruz—all of them connected by arched bridges and aerial trams.
Does Coco rise to the heights of Pixar’s very best work? No. But it is a generous, heartfelt film, full of color and music, one that offers a timely Thanksgiving tribute to the intergenerational importance of family. Its very title lovingly derives from the name of Miguel’s oldest living relative, great-grandmother Mamá Coco, whose importance to the story only becomes clear late in the film.
I wish the movie suggested that all was now well with Pixar, but warning signs are, if anything, multiplying. The studio’s next two films will be sequels, Incredibles 2 and an utterly heretical “franchise reboot,” Toy Story 4. With Coco, even the customary delight of a Pixar short before the movie is missing: In its place is “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” which whatever its quality (it did not screen for critics) suggests that the studio is being ever-more subsumed into its Disney parent. And the interlocking news stories that Pixar guru John Lasseter is going on leave due to alleged inappropriate behavior and that Rashida Jones left Toy Story 4 over issues of diversity are depressing on almost every level imaginable.
But those are issues to be addressed in the days to come. In the meantime, my advice is to round up the family, take them to Coco, and together give thanks.