‘Coco’ Sends Pixar On A Colorful Trip South Of The Border

Pixar’s Coco is a riot of colors: fireworks, striped skirts, polka-dotted dogs, and orange marigold petals — the symbolic flower of the Day of the Dead — sugaring everything like sprinkles. It has to be cheerful. After all, its a cartoon for kids starring black and white bones. Generations of them, full skeletons, some with eyebrows and goatees, welcoming young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) into the afterlife with a wistful hug. Sighs an uncle, “I miss my nose.”

Miguel isn’t dead. But to his living relatives, he might as well be. Three generations ago in his same Mexican village, his great-great-grandfather set out to become a guitarist, a story Coco‘s opening prologue illustrates in bright papel picado banners, which, when Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda realizes her husband is never coming back, fade from romantic pink to blue to gray to the bright red of her anger. Imelda founded a cobbler business to support their daughter, Coco, and banned music from their home. She died before Miguel was born, but her spirit still haunts the house, who still slam the windows when a mariachi band strums by and consider songwriting to be a sin. As for their traitorous patriarch, no one alive even remembers his name, except maybe for Coco, now a sweetly babbling wheelchair-bound family mascot stricken with dementia.

Yet, Miguel wants to play guitar. And when he steals an acoustic mother-of-pearl-inlaid beauty from the tomb of the town’s most famous resident, the 1940s superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), to enter the town square’s talent show on Día de los Muertos — the night when the dead are allowed to visit the living — he flickers into the spirit world to find, yikes, Shoe Queen Imelda (Alanna Ubach) screaming that she won’t send him back to Earth unless he gives up music forever.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina have co-directed (and in Molina’s case, co-written with Matthew Aldrich) yet another sentimental late-Pixar fantasy about finding yourself, whether that means turning into a bear, or literally going inside your own head. The broad strokes are familiar, but the film itself is cluttered with local details. There’s dancing papayas, heaping plates of tamales, hyperactive folk art animals, people nicknamed “Chorizo,” a dozen Frida Kahlos, a zesty take on Chavela Vargas’ tragic ballad “La Llorona,” lucha libre masks on laundry lines, a cameo from the iconic wrestler El Santo, and one from a less-iconic, and ethnically indeterminate DJ Skrillex, who sells out stadiums in Latin America. Naturally, when Miguel befriends a stray dog, it’s a Mexican hairless.

Coco’s enthusiasm to teach children about life south of the border recalls Walt Disney’s 1940s cartoon double-feature Saludos Amigos and, my personal favorite, The Three Caballeros, in which Donald Duck learns about piñatas and tries to seduce Carmen Miranda’s younger sister Aurora. It’s great to watch Pixar stretch beyond Silicon Valley suburbs, even if it’s in part their smart, but overdue recognition of the power of the Spanish-speaking box office. Still, audiences already familiar with the culture could feel like the screenwriters spread out a stack of lotería cards and checked off every box, the way I imagine Austrians might get annoyed by The Sound of Music‘s fetish for cuckoo clocks and lederhosen.

Yet, as someone who grew up in a stretch of Texas where the holidays including visiting our family friends’ ofrendas — my father’s best pal gave over his living room to his wife Gloria’s marvelous construction — I was awestruck to see a masterpiece like hers recreated here as the twinkling metropolis of the dead, reachable only after crossing a flowered bridge that glows like Christo’s Gates, and, of course, passing through customs where the ghosts register the pastries and bottles of booze their loved ones left next to their photos. Is it intentional that a major plot point of the film is a wastrel (Gael García Bernal) trying to slip past border control? And if so, what is it supposed to mean except, one hopes, empathy for those desperate to cross?

Miguel is a fine character. He’s plucky and a bit too perfect, but when he wraps his fingers around the neck of a guitar and closes his eyes, he vibrates with his love of music. Among the skulls, he hides inside a bright red hoodie that recalls Elliott from E.T., and the longer he stays on the wrong side of mortality, his skin begins to disappear like Marty McFly.

These twin touchstones from two of the most famous all-American flicks of the ’80s feel like Pixar ensuring that audiences will feel at home in this foreign land. Fair enough. But Coco really comes to life when it explores new terrain in Disney’s over-trampled stroll down a family’s memory lane. Of course, it has twice the dignity of that dreadful Finding Dory. Better, Coco digs into the legacy people leave behind, both in Imelda’s multi-generational muting of her quiet, shoemaking descendants, and in its questioning of the selfishness, particularly the male artistic selfishness, that crippled her heart almost a hundred years ago. Most of all, Coco hums with the idea that we’re kept alive by the stories people tell about us when we’re gone. Whether Coco itself will be an eternal story is iffy. But I’m glad it’s with us today.