The superficial checklist for a Disney animation usually contains an important moral lesson, a wacky animal sidekick, an asexual romance and at least one frantic chase scene. But buried underneath the bright color palette often lies a bittersweet tone and a surprisingly deft examination of grief. In films from Bambi to The Lion King to Frozen to, most notably, Up, slapstick antics have sat alongside impactful stories of loss, adding rich emotional texture to a light canvas and teaching a younger audience about death without employing a heavy hand.
In Coco, the studio’s latest collaboration with Pixar, the dead have never been so present, quite literally. The story follows Miguel, a Mexican boy who aspires to be a musician – yet in his family, all forms of music are banned. The reason for this extreme mandate can be traced back to his great-great-grandmother, who was abandoned by her singer-songwriter husband so he could follow his dreams and then instilled a hatred of music in following generations as a result. When the annual Day of the Dead comes about, Miguel rebels from those around him and inadvertently finds himself trapped on the other side, an exciting yet dangerous world inhabited by those who have crossed over. He must try to find his way back to the living while also proving his musical talents.
If it all sounds a bit ramshackle, well, for a while, it kind of is. As with some of Pixar’s other original films, such as Inside Out and Wall-E, there’s a complex universe to set up, and within the first 15 minutes of Coco, we’re bombarded with exposition. But there’s a trademark slickness that sells it and while recognizable tropes are present, there’s something warm and comforting about their familiarity, and it helps that they play out within such fantastical, fresh-feeling surroundings.
The Land of the Dead is one of Pixar’s most visually ambitious worlds yet – a breathtaking vision of interconnected neon-lit boroughs, based loosely on Guanajuato in central Mexico. Its inhabitants are able to cross over to the world of the living if, on the Day of the Dead, someone chooses to pay tribute to them with a photograph while their existence on the other side collapses once all memory of them fades in the real world. Once the slightly exhausting explanation is out of the way, these rules allow for a poignant through-line about the impact we have on those around us once we’ve passed, based on how we choose to spend our lives. Miguel is torn between a love for his family and a love for music, the former worrying that the latter will tear them apart. Coco asks what form of legacy matters the most and whether our personal ambitions can successfully coexist alongside our commitment to loved ones.
Of course, profound existential questions are delivered in a brightly colored package, alive with wit, action set pieces and, most importantly, music. Unlike a large number of Disney’s animated offerings, Pixar films have done away with original songs but Coco’s plot allows for a prominent smattering of catchy tunes. One in particular, the frequently replayed Remember Me, has the potential to join the stacked pantheon of much-loved Disney songs with sweetly sad lyrics about life and loss.
The border between the living and the dead, which operates in a similar way to a customs department, also brings up unavoidable real-world comparisons. Trump’s attempts to defame and deport Mexican immigrants cast an offscreen shadow over these scenes, but Coco is focused less on specific politics and more on something broader. After Moana and Queen of Katwe last year, it’s the latest chapter in the studio’s drive to bring more diversity to their catalogue and using an exclusively Latino cast (including Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt) in a film that will reach such a wide audience feels like another important step.
While there’s a previously mentioned adherence to the Pixar playbook of predictable plot elements, the script does manage one genuinely surprising twist in the third act. As the final stretch approaches, there’s also the requisite tug at the heartstrings although it’s delivered with such devastating delicacy that even steely viewers will find themselves moist-eyed. Coco is a rousing, affecting, fun and much-needed return to form after underwhelming Finding Nemo and Cars sequels and will help to ensure that Pixar’s legacy remains intact.