Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina)

For its 19th feature, Pixar made some atypical moves. Unlike any of its predecessors, Coco could be considered a musical, and despite being aimed at a young audience, the story deals with death, is filled with skulls, and uses a foreign language in a carefree manner. The film also marks Disney’s first work set fully in Mexico, and first take on the USA’s southern neighbour since Pancho Pistolas and his segment in 1944’s The Three Caballeros. Ironically enough, the film will be released during the tensest political time between the countries in decades. Donald Trump won the election promoting hate towards immigrants and questioning NAFTA. His plan for building a 30-feet-tall border wall is, against all odds, currently on its first stage, ese cabrón.

Coco follows Miguel, a young boy living in central Mexico surrounded by his shoemaking family. Music, Miguel’s biggest passion, is banned in the household after his great-great-grandfather abandoned his home looking for a successful career in showbiz. On the eve of Día de Muertos, Miguel fathoms this man is national idol Ernesto de la Cruz, convincing himself he must follow his dream of becoming a musician. The boy flees home after grandma impedes him from participating in a local talent show by destroying his guitar. His quest for a new guitar takes him to the local cemetery, where de la Cruz’s tomb transports him (and stray dog Dante) to the land of the dead. Miguel can only return home through the blessing of his deceased relatives, who set a single condition: he must quit music for the rest of his life. As the kid does not accept, he must find a new way to return to the land of the living with the help of Héctor, a trickster desperate not to be completely forgotten by his elderly living daughter, as this would cause his final death and disappearance.

Family and tradition, both universal subjects, are the leitmotif of the film, and Mexican society works as an ideal canvas to explore them. Miguel’s family, both living and dead, is practically presented as a single character. Regardless of age and gender, over a dozen characters stick to the family’s trade and follow its codes, enforced by Miguel’s strict yet loving Abuelita (despite serious issues with machismo, Mexico remains a matriarchal society). The exception in this portrayal is Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother, who is slowly losing her memory and therefore, the family’s link with music. Miguel, a strong-willed and resourceful kid, is suddenly faced with the dilemma of challenging his family’s obstinate codes in the middle of a ritual holiday like Día de Muertos.

Coco’s narrative strategies don’t seem to be any different from traditional Disney screenwriting, becoming the weakest aspect of the production. The film opens to a witty papel picado sequence presenting the story’s background, and is followed by an agile, accomplished first act in the land of the living, when the film explores its more dramatic façade. As Miguel crosses to the land of the dead, the film falls prey to common, deus-ex-machina resources and the plot is overshadowed by the luscious soundscape and visuals. The most refreshing aspect in terms of writing is no doubt its laid-back, natural use of Spanish, performed by an almost completely Hispanic cast. Lead Anthony González (Miguel) and Gael García Bernal (Héctor) stand out for their voice performances.

Cultural appropriation was certainly a delicate issue surrounding the film, especially after Disney’s selfish attempt to register Día de Muertos as a commercial trademark in 2013, which was smartly withdrawn after media pressure. The film itself is, however, a respectful celebration of Mexican traditions and imagery. In line with Pixar’s history, its references to pop culture are subtle and scrupulous (take note, Dreamworks). We see some homages to mid-century Mexican stars, most notably Frida Kahlo, who is humorously portrayed as a self-referential artist with a minor role in the plot. The film’s cosmogony does take some liberties, like integrating Alebrijes, original to certain small communities of the southern state of Oaxaca, as part of the cosmogony of central-west Mexico, where we can deduce the film is set. Día de Muertos is gaining strength in Mexico despite the growing popularity of Halloween, which is celebrated a day before. Coco will only contribute to this tradition’s revival, especially with the younger generations.

Coco is also one of the studio’s visually strongest films, on par with Ratatouille’s elegant depiction of Paris and its kitchens, and trailing only Wall E’s plot-constructing visual design. The film’s portrayal of Santa Cecilia, a fictitious Mexican town, reveals a sensitive and profound research of the rural settlements of Central Mexico: traditional self-constructed houses with generous patios closely linked to the family’s workshops, plazas crowded by street vendors and musicians, and an overall frenzy for ornamentation. For the land of the dead, a more imaginative process resulted in a colourful megalopolis inspired by colonial Mexican cities and the local Art Deco period.

Music is, expectedly, the very soul of the feature. Kristen Anderson and Robert López composed a handful of original songs for the film, relegating Giacchino’s playful score to a supporting role. Remember me/Recuérdame, the film’s central tune, is inspired by the midcentury hits of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, and finds its most moving rendition as a heartbreaking lullaby at the end of the film. Secondary songs like Proud Corazón, The World es mi Familia and humorous Un Poco Loco reflect a whimsical yet insightful take on Mexican traditional music. The soundtrack features a bold selection of performers including Natalia Lafourcade, El Buki, grupero legend Bronco, and Miguel, an African American R&B singer of Mexican descent.

Miguel’s journey in the land of the dead is about how tradition must not be mistaken with convention, about ancestry as what makes but should not limit who we are, and about family as an intimate, unconditional source of love. Coco will not be remembered as a landmark for Pixar in terms of storytelling, but it is no doubt one of the studio’s richest, most moving and bighearted tales.

Coco had a (successful) early release in Mexico due to Día de Muertos weekend. The film is preceded by an unnecessary, anticlimactic Frozen spinoff short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that stiffly manages to fit six songs in 21 minutes, and whose only merit is dealing with the idea of tradition, a central subject in the feature film.