At first, Disney-Pixar’s latest, “Coco,” sounds a lot like the 2014 Fox film “The Book of Life.”
Both are animated features steeped in the aesthetics and customs of Day of the Dead: the Mexican tradition of creating elaborate altars, painted skulls and paths of marigolds to welcome the spirits of dead loved ones for a temporary visit to the world of the living. And both films focus on a young boy who follows his musical dreams at the risk of disappointing his family.
So it seemed like familiar territory, which made it all the more unexpected to find myself transported into a fabulously colorful, slightly psychedelic and entirely magical world where I was so wrapped up in the story about families connecting across generations that the tears on my cheek took me by surprise.
Pixar has always had a knack for tugging at the heartstrings of grown-ups while delighting younger viewers with good-natured characters and eye-popping visuals. Those elements are also at work here, but not since “Up” has an animated film delved so deeply into the web of relationships woven on the way to old age, nor has Pixar ever looked so closely at a specific cultural tradition.
The result is a rich experience for any audience: a story of family and culture, death and transcendence, all set to vibrant Latin music — including a new song by Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) — and awash in the brilliant colors and dazzling designs the imaginative talents at Disney and Pixar are known for.
“Coco” centers on Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old with the heart of a musician born into a family of shoemakers who’ve banned music for generations. His great-great-grandfather was a guitarist who left his great-great-grandmother alone to raise their young daughter, Coco, and the Riveras forbade all music after that.
By the time Miguel comes along, Coco is the elderly matriarch of the family: a kind-faced collection of wrinkles who sits quietly in her room all day. Miguel feels disconnected from his family history and resentful that it would prevent him from being like his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Mexico’s most beloved musician.
As Miguel’s family prepares for the Dia de Muertos holiday, stacking a colorful altar with food, flowers and family photos, he defiantly takes off in pursuit of music, hoping to compete in a neighborhood showcase that would confirm his talents. But his attempts to procure a guitar accidentally lead him across the golden bridge into the realm of the dead.
In this otherworldly place, Miguel uncovers a mystery, connects with a quirky guy named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and meets generations of relatives he’s only known through old photos. He encounters magical alebrijes, fantastical spirit animals that help guide the lost. And he realizes that his musical dream could be more meaningful than he thought — especially for Mama Coco — but he’ll need his family’s support to return to the land of the living.
With “Coco” (which is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s really Miguel’s journey), director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and screenwriter/co-director Adrian Molina have crafted a timeless and beautiful tale that’s classically Pixar: playful, inventive and profound. It’s a universal story of love and belonging set in a kaleidoscopic world of brilliant apparitions and lively, well-dressed skeletons.
The animation is exceptional: Realistic elements, like Mama Coco’s gnarled, arthritic hands, look absolutely lifelike, while the spirit world is populated by buildings and bodies that defy gravity.
Like the multicolored, flying tiger-dragon that swoops through Miguel’s adventure into the land of spirits, “Coco” is a thrilling and joyous vision, a celebration of life and the loving tradition of the Day of the Dead.
“Coco,” a Disney-Pixar release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements.” Running time: 109 minutes. Four stars out of four.
Pixar films have never been shy about death. The “Toy Story” films are, in part, about mortality. The poetic highlight of “Up” is a wordless sequence of a spouse’s passing. The Earth, itself, was left for dead in “Wall-E.”
But Pixar plunges fully into the afterlife in “Coco,” a brightly colored fable surrounding the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
The imagery of skeletons and graves in a kids’ movie might have put off other animation studios. But director Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc”) envisioned a film about family heritage and keeping alive the memories of deceased loved ones so they aren’t, as he says, “just fading photos in an album.”
It’s also a celebration of Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a musician. But after a feud with his family, he slips into a wondrous netherworld where he depends on his long-dead ancestors to restore him to the land of the living.
“Coco,” which opens Wednesday, is Pixar’s first feature film with a minority lead character, and one of the largest American productions ever to feature an almost entirely Latino cast (among them Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal). That makes it something of a landmark event, one that has already set box-office records in Mexico where it opened several weeks early.
But it also took a lot of homework and a lot of outreach for Pixar to convince Latinos that the production wasn’t just big-budget cultural appropriation. Such fears spiked when Disney tried to trademark “Dia de los Muertos” in 2013. After a backlash, the studio abandoned the effort.
Charting a different path, Pixar brought in cultural consultants, including playwright Octavio Solis and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who had been critical of the trademark bid. Unkrich retailored the film’s approach, doubling down on efforts to create an authentic celebration of Mexican folklore, traditions and music. (AP)
“We took every pain that we could along the way to surround ourselves with cultural consultants, to spend a lot of time in Mexico, specifically embedding ourselves with Mexican families down there,” said Unkrich. “I knew that there would be a fear that we were going to lapse into cliche and stereotype and so we did everything we could to not let that happen.”
It also meant pivoting from Unkrich’s initial idea, which centered on a Mexican-American boy who travels to his family in Mexico for the first time. In that treatment, the young protagonist is trying to get over the grief of a loss.
“It was born out of the fact that I’m not Latino myself. I’m American and that was at the time my natural entrance into a story,” said Unkrich. “We realized that that thematically was antithetical to what Dia de los Muertos is also about, which is this obligation to never forget, to never let go. We at that point had an epiphany that we were making the film as outsiders.”
“It didn’t really embrace the DNA of the holiday, which is not letting go of but staying connected to,” says Darla K. Anderson, a veteran Pixar producer. “When we realized that, we definitely pivoted to embrace more of the connected nature of Dia de los Muertos.”
Pixar also looked within its own ranks to help Unkrich craft a culturally faithful tale. Adrian Molina, an animator on previous Pixar releases, serves as co-director and helped steer the script.
“Growing up Mexican-American, I know the transformative power that seeing yourself represented onscreen has,” says Molina. “My hope is for anyone who’s a small Latino or Latina kid and sees this film that that has an impact on how they see themselves. And if you’re coming from a different experience, recognizing the fact that there’s Latino and Latina heroes and the beauty of a Mexican family.”
Hispanics are one of the largest demographics of regular moviegoers, yet they are seldom catered to. They last year accounted for 23 percent of frequent moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Mexican music, too, plays a central role in the film. For that, composer Michael Giacchino (“Up,” “Ratatouille”) collaborated with Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco. A research team was dispatched to Mexico City to bring back musical styles from throughout the country. And DJ and producer Camilo Lara served as musical consultant. (AP)
By Sandy Cohen