Although Disney Pixar’s latest animated classic Coco was originally released in November of 2017, it was given a well-deserved second screening at Images Cinema on March 17 over spring break, generously sponsored by the Williamstown Community Chest. For those who missed Coco when it was in theaters a few months ago, this was a special opportunity to experience a movie which, despite the potential pitfalls of the Mexican “Day of the Dead” trope, handles the subject in a masterfully engaging and poignant way.
Directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy in Mexico. Miguel’s greatest aspiration in life is to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) – a character perhaps based off of Mexican legends Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, superstars of the first half of the 20th century.
Unfortunately for Miguel, his family has declared music dead to them ever since his great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was abandoned by her musician husband for his career. “Music had torn her family apart, but shoes held them all together,” Miguel says in the opening narration. “You see, that woman was my great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda. She died way before I was born.” After her husband left the picture, Imelda was forced take control as the matriarch of the now-thriving Rivera shoemaking company.
Naturally, Miguel is expected to continue the family trade. But unbeknownst to his family’s tireless shoemaking enterprise are Miguel’s secret musical ambitions, growing stronger by the day – he even hides an elaborate shrine to de la Cruz in the attic of his house. What is this “de la Cruzito” to do?
Things seem to finally begin to fall into place for Miguel when he unfolds an old photograph of his Mamá Imelda and her daughter, his great-grandmother Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), to reveal a third figure – a man holding the same guitar as Ernesto de la Cruz. Could this silk-tongued crooner be Miguel’s mysterious great-great-grandfather? It is hard to tell due to the figure’s missing head, snipped out of every family photograph after that fateful day, but it certainly seems that way to Miguel.
Thus, in order to participate in a talent show on Día de los Muertos, Miguel “borrows” de la Cruz’s famous guitar, his own having been smashed to bits earlier in the day by his Abuelita (Renée Victor). But strangely, upon the first strum, Miguel is transported to a parallel universe that turns out to be the Land of the Dead. There, he meets departed members of his own family and ultimately, with the help of a classically quirky and unreliable helpmeet named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), de la Cruz himself.
We soon learn that the Land of the Dead is not synonymous with an eternal afterlife; these sentient skeletons exist there only as long as someone back on Earth remembers them, which is why the photos on Día de los Muertos shrines are so important. Without that vital image, an ofrenda cannot be made for the Day of the Dead when the departed come back for a visit. This leaves characters such as Héctor, whose image has never been put up, doomed to a perpetuity of failed attempts to cross back over for a visit.
The final stretch of the film reveals not only a few plot twists, but a substantial amount of wit and tenderness as well, with an ending that is almost as much of a tearjerker as 2009’s Up. But perhaps the best manifestation of this is de la Cruz’s most famous song “Remember Me,” which was written by none other than College alum Kristen Anderson-Lopez ’94 and her husband Robert Lopez. The duo was most recently honored with an Academy Award for their work in the film, which won both Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature.
“It started with the idea that a song can be played twice in the movie, and the audience hears something different each time,” Robert Lopez told Vanity Fair of “Remember Me.” “The first time you hear it, it is a very flashy song, and the second time you hear it, it is the way it was meant to be played, and you realize it means something else, and it is a plot revelation. That’s something we’d never seen before in a movie.”
Ultimately, Coco is a triumph for Pixar – far surpassing its more lackluster recent releases, such as Finding Dory and Cars 3. It is more on par with films such as Inside Out; some may even see parallels with the mystical bathhouse bridge in the 2001 Studio Ghibli classic Spirited Away. But most of all, Coco handles an objectively morbid subject in a way that renders it anything but dead; viewers cannot help but lose themselves in the vibrant, fantastical skeleton-party that is Coco’s Día de los Muertos-inspired world.