There was talk amongst the parents at the screening about that other animated film about the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. It took them a moment to remember, but it was 2014’s The Book of Life. For approaching this mythology once more in animated form, Pixar’s Coco already has a comparison for that old argument amongst animated movies of which came first. Thankfully, Coco not only outshines The Book of Life in art and story but is surprisingly meaningful, emotional and perfectly timed for a Thanksgiving release, given the heavy themes of family.
In a small Mexican village, the 12-year- boy Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) has a dream of music, but one his family does not share. Music has apparently been a burden on the Rivera family, dating all the way back to great-great grandpa who left his family to pursue a music career. He is so despised by the family that his photo has been ripped from their Day of the Dead tribute and his name never spoken. The Riveras are more proud of their successful shoe business. All except Miguel, who’d instead pick up a guitar.
Aiming to play music at the local festival, he borrows the guitar of the famed singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous man whom Miguel believes to be his great-great grandpa. It turns out the guitar magically sends him to the Land of the Dead, where the spirits of the dead reside without skin. To find his way back home, he needs the blessing of his ancestors, but the only ones present forbid him to go back and play music. Surely Ernesto will respect Miguel’s love of music to send him back.
One significant advantage that Coco has over The Book of Life is that there’s a more grounded vision of the Land of the Dead. Clear rules are established for how the afterlife functions. On the Day of the Dead, spirits can cross a bridge into the Land of the Living, but only if their picture is displayed by the family on that day. Not only can spirits not crossover if their photo isn’t placed in tribute, but they pass away to another realm for being forgotten. Visiting mortals cannot crossover either without a family blessing, and too long a visit will result in their death, as Miguel slowly starts turning into a skeleton. This creates a real goal and consequences for Miguel. There’s also enough of an incentive for the forgotten Hector (Gael García Bernal) to help him out for the trade of placing Hector’s portrait in tribute in the mortal world.
The tale is mostly a family drama with Miguel peeling back the mysteries of his lineage as he traverses the colorful world of the dead. Though some obvious twists are foreshadowed in the film’s opening exposition by Miguel, I was surprised how twisty and revealing the story became of the Rivera family’s history.There’s some fun to be had, as when Miguel outsmarts the LoD authorities by disguising himself as a skeleton and later teaming up with Hector for a musical performance. The little details of how this world works, from the facial recognition system for guiding spirits to the swanky clubs for elite souls, are fantastic and wondrous, even if there isn’t much an explanation how the neon spirit animals work. I guess you to slam some cute animals in there somewhere.