Pixar's 'Coco': fun, vibrant, swarming with dead people

Ain’t the afterlife grand?

Ain’t the afterlife grand? Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Pixar does not shy away from death. Any moviegoer who’s been reduced to a puddle on the theater floor by one of its stories can tell you that. 

But in Coco, the famed animation studio makes death a focal point. Tackling murder and the afterlife in this much detail would be a gutsy move for anybody else making a “kids’ movie.” For Pixar, it’s another notch in the win column.

The story follows Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old Mexican boy who has to hide his love of the guitar from his music-hating family. Miguel practices in secret, learning licks from the movies of Mexico’s greatest musician, hometown hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

On the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to enter the annual talent show; however, his grandmother sees his guitar and destroys it. Miguel runs away to the cemetery to take the legendary guitar of de la Cruz, which hangs above the deceased musician’s tomb. But when Miguel grabs the instrument, he finds himself crossing between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Coco is a success on a few different fronts. What’s most apparent is Pixar’s sensitivity toward Mexican heritage. It’s great to see the studio branching out to tell more culturally diverse stories; what’s better is a treatment that’s regarded as an authentic representation and not some two-dimensional pastiche. Pixar did its due diligence, which allows for a movie that’s fresh both visually and in its storytelling. Dia de los Muertos in real life is an impressive spectacle, and Pixar’s fleshing out of its more mystical elements provides some of their finest eye candy yet.

As Miguel crosses the bridge into the spirit world, we see the vibrant urban landscape that is the land of the dead, and as the frame fills with lights and festivities we’re comforted by an afterlife that’s less scary and more celebratory than we may have imagined. Pixar has always been on the animation forefront, yet with scenes like this, each new movie still finds a way to dazzle.

Miguel’s odyssey masterfully interweaves some of the cooler and lesser known aspects of Mexican culture (the alebrije Pepita, a mythical animal statue, being the coolest) with explorations of family, death, and music’s effects on memory and dementia. Though that last part will go over the heads of the movie’s younger viewers, its execution is masterful. The plot is telegraphed a bit, but that may only be because we’ve come to expect Pixar to do the unexpected. And the rest of Coco more than makes up for it.

There was one major downside to seeing Coco, though it had nothing to do with the movie itself. It was the excruciating 21-minute “short” that preceded it: “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” Pixar’s pre-movie stories are often as enjoyable as their features, so it’s a shame moviegoers have been subjected to this meritless short, which focuses on the most annoying animated character in recent memory: Olaf the snowman from Frozen.

The short will no longer run before the film as of December 7, sparing you the agony and allowing you to jump right into the treat that is Coco.

Directors: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Rated: PG
Theater: Now playing, area theaters