Pixar has been having kind of a rough couple of years. Not only are they embroiled in this wave of scandals that are racing through Hollywood, exposing all of the ingrained perversion in the industry, they just haven’t seemed to have been firing on all cylinders. Inside Out was certainly a triumph, but other than that they haven’t had anything that’s really clicked with me in quite some time. Finding Dory was fun, but I feel like it slid right off of me, and I really remember very little of it. Same with Monster’s University. I still haven’t seen a single Cars movie, and they just keep churning those out. Honestly, I thought the Good Dinosaur was better than most people seem to, but it still didn’t feel like anything overly special. It’s just kind of felt like they’ve been more worried on making films that had the most commercial appeal, and could sell the most toys, rather than focusing on the wonderful storytelling that the company was built on. But, whereas in the old days it felt like Pixar was allowed to make whatever wonderful story they wanted to in exchange for the occasional Cars movie, it does feel like that ratio has shifted. They’re still allowed to make the occasional classic film though, such as Inside Out. So, when their latest film, Coco, began approaching release, the eternal question of whether this will actually be another good Pixar movie started popping up. It certainly looked like it had something to say, and it has a very unique and wonderful aesthetic to it. However, we now have to go into Pixar movies with some worries, hopeful that they managed to use their formula for good this time. And, luckily, they got it very right this time. Not even that interminable Frozen thing that’s attached to the film could take away from what a wonderful film Coco is.
Coco is the story of a young boy named Miguel Rivera who lives with his extended family in a small Mexican town, working on their family business. For generations the Rivera family have made shoes, ever since their matriarch, Mama Imelda, decreed that they would focus on shoes, and eschew music when her husband abandoned the family to become a famous singer. Her daughter, and Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco continued that tradition, and it became Rivera family history. But, Miguel wants to rebel. He’s obsessed with a famous singer named Ernesto de la Cruz, and has been secretly learning how to play the guitar, in the hopes of becoming a famous musician. However, when Dia de los Muertos arrives, Miguel is caught by the rest of his family, and punished. He throws a fit, and ends up accidentally finding that the picture of his great-great-grandmother that sits on the family’s ofrenda implies that his missing great-great-grandfather is de la Cruz himself. So, Miguel sneaks out of the house, and goes to take de la Cruz’s famous guitar from his mausoleum in order to play in a competition. This was a mistake though, because when Miguel steals from the dead on Dia de los Murtos he becomes cursed, and is sent to the land of the dead. He meets with the spirits of his ancestors and learns that there’s only one way to return to the land of the living. He needs to gain their blessing. Which, they’ll give. But only if he promises to never play music again. Miguel refuses, and runs away from his family, figuring that if he actually is related to de la Cruz he could find him, and get his blessing instead.
So, Miguel meets up with a poor spirit named Hector who has no family in the world the living, and who is about to be forgotten and fade from all existence. Hector and Miguel make a deal where he’ll help Miguel find de la Cruz in exchange for Miguel taking a photo of Hector back to Earth to remember him, letting him survive in the afterlife. So the two begin travelling all around the land of the dead, trying to find de la Cruz, while Miguel’s dead family try to find him, because if he doesn’t go back he’ll be trapped in death forever. Miguel and Hector end up having a falling out though when Hector learns that Miguel could have accepted the blessing from his family at any time, and saved him, so Miguel has to go on his own. He ends up breaking into de la Cruz’s mansion, where he’s throwing a massive party. Miguel finds de la Cruz, and instantly convinces the famous musician that they’re related. Miguel and de la Cruz have a great time, and Miguel is thrilled to have finally met his hero. Which is when everything falls apart. Hector shows back up, and it turns out he knows de la Cruz. Because they used to be partners in real life, and they realize that de la Cruz killed Miguel and stole his songs to become famous. de la Cruz is threatened to be revealed, and ends up imprisoning both Miguel and Hector. The two start talking and Miguel realizes that de la Cruz isn’t his great-great-grandfather, Hector is. The two are then saved by Imelda and the rest of the family. Imelda and Hector agree to work together, even though she still hasn’t forgiven him for abandoning the family, and they go attack de la Cruz to reveal the truth. They assault his annual concert, reveal that he’s a bad person, get the picture of Hector to keep him alive, and go back to the land of the living. Miguel accepts their blessing and returns to the land of the living, where he plays a special song that Hector sang when Coco was a child, getting through to the old woman. She then remembers Hector, and keeps him alive, paving the way for Miguel to be proud to be a Rivera, while also embracing his musical side.
Coco was an absolute delight, from beginning to end. It’s a pretty typical fable structure, and on the surface could resemble any number of Disney films where they flirt with random other cultures. But, unlike most of those, Coco is full of a flair and an aesthetic that feel so much more real. Coco is an unabashedly Mexican film, telling a story that feels relateable and understandable to any viewer, while also clearly having a very specific worldview. The film is gorgeous, and fully embraces the unique world that it’s created. Seeing this magical land of the dead, with its society of skeletons that focus so much on family and what they’ve done in the world. Like any fable the plot is rather telegraphed and the twists aren’t too shocking, but that’s not what you come to a story like Coco for. It’s not necessarily what the story is, it’s how they tell it. And they told this one beautifully. The design, thwase cast, the music, it all come together to create a gorgeous film that expertly plays with the heartstrings, delivering a hell of an experience.
And, it’s all in service of a profoundly universal and human idea. That we all want to be remembered after we die. The spirits of Coco live in a wonderful afterlife where they’re allowed to follow their passions and continue living with their family, but only if they’re remembered. If their family still on Earth ever forget them, they fade away. So, it’s important to have passed down a legacy to your family members, such as the ofrenda’s, in order to always be remembered. Because no one wants to be forgotten. We all want to leave our mark on the world, some indelible sign that we were here, and that our life meant something. For some people, like Ernesto de la Cruz, that meant destroying those around us to project some sort of cover that made the world love us. He killed his best friend and stole everything from him so that he could become a famous singer, which paid off for him in both the real and after lives. But, we also see that people who led more humble lives, and focused more on making a difference to their family could be remembered too. I feel like most people wish they could me famous. To be known around the world and cherished. But, in the end, the real sign of a life well lived is that someone remembers you. You can obviously accomplish this by becoming famous, and sharing your skills and art with the rest of the world, but it’s just as worthy and valid to life a more humble life, just making your family happy. There’s innumerable ways to lead your life, so as long as you’re happy, and you make other people happy, you’re doing things right.
Coco was written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, directed by Lee Unkrich, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk