By the time it reaches its tearfully joyous finale, Pixar's Coco plays like the movie that the most fervent Pixar fans have for a generation been telling me I've been missing every time I haven’t bawled my eyes out over the hurt feelings of plastic junk in the toybox. Rather than the quick welling behind the eyes I felt for Wall-E or Jessie, the Toy Story 2 cowgirl, Coco had me crying for full minutes at its last scene, a Día de los Muertos fiesta featuring sugar-skull fireworks, ranchera sing-alongs and that holiday sense of a family's enduring continuity in the face of time and death. I cried, but warmly, with relief, over love and memory across generations, a much worthier cause of tears than the possible incineration of mass-produced consumer goods.
Gorgeous and funny, Coco offers most of the usual Pixar pleasures. Here’s a kiddo’s quest to define a self, in this case the descent of young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) into a land of the dead inspired by Día de los Muertos celebrations. It’s eye-popping, a richly layered underworld of Mayan architecture, of plazas and bell towers outlined in Christmas lights. Imagine if Mexico City somehow sprawled upward, part Blade Runner and part ofrenda altar, and then was populated entirely with the most high-spirited bone-folks since Walt Disney’s 1929 short “The Skeleton Dance.”
In this mad realm, as in the mindscapes of Inside/Out or the prehistory of The Good Dinosaur, the hero must brave the spectacular unknown, meet some new pals, escape some dangers and learn that family matters most. Those story elements can wear thin, the scrapes and friendships as programmatic as the rules of the new world are arbitrary. Coco sags a little in its middle with the weight of the familiar. Trapped, and desperate to get back to the land of the living before dawn, Miguel must track down the long-dead, still beloved singing vaquero he believes is his great-grandfather, as he can only cross the border if he has secured the blessing of a dead family member. This is nonsense, of course, an excuse to dally and explore. Sometimes watching a Pixar movie is like loading up a video game where, after 10 seconds spent gaping at the open world, you have to buckle down and perform some incidental quests.
But Miguel and his milieu freshen up the usual story beats, and the cavalcade of skeletons and extravagantly psychedelicized alebrije spirit animals never stops dazzling. (That horned winged lion beast, Pepita, is piñata-bright and fearsome in a way that more photoreal CGI movie monsters simply aren’t.) The boy’s great goal in life is to be a mariachi singer himself, though his cobbler family, haunted by a scandal a couple of generations back, prohibits all music-making. Still, that possible great-grandfather — a Vicente Fernandez type voiced by Benjamin Bratt — has long inspired Miguel through his 70-year-old hits and his curiously un-ranchera catch phrase “Seize your moment.” I admit to despairing, a little, every time Coco seemed to lean on that generic self-help maxim, but I should have trusted the thoughtfulness of the filmmakers. By the end, that sentiment’s terrifying ambiguity gets smartly exposed, a reminder that the lessons movies teach big-hearted dreamers also get picked up by the cruel and selfish.
Less winning, to me, is the Pixar habit of imposing a comfortable human mundanity upon the fantastic or the unknowable. Just as Inside/Out imagined the mystery of personality along the lines of an office team-building exercise, Coco posits that the bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead is dominated by a border-crossing station, complete with customs officials and facial-recognition software. (Well, skull recognition.) The dead, you see, can journey back into our world on one night each year, to hover over their families and loved ones, but only if those families still remember those dead relations. In plot terms, that means that the only skeletons who can cross into the land of the living must be represented in photos on their families’ Día de los Muertos altars. You might expect that a movie set in Mexico and starring Mexican characters and committed to Mexican folklore might find something to say about such imagery, or at least demonstrate that the creators have thought through the implications. Instead, it’s just a glib joke.
The miracle of Coco, though, is not just in its creepy-funny designs or its riots of color and music. (That singer Miguel searches for holds glittering Gatsby parties I kept wishing I could pause and study in the theater.) Coco gets better as it goes, growing into something stranger and more resonant than its boy’s-adventure setup suggests. Like Cars 3, it surprises by dashing away the rote assumptions of its premise; unlike the Cars movies, less than five minutes of Coco gets wasted on time-killing chase sequences.
It’s too busy chasing down an idea, the comforting thought that the people we love live on in a way as long as we remember them. Miguel spends much of the movie hiding from some dead relations who want to send him back to our world with a blessing that demands he promise not to pursue music; while they’re just skeletons, clothes and hair now, he recognizes them from the family photos on his ofrenda. In his search, he pairs up with Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a vagabond goof of a skeleton who wants Miguel’s help in being sure that he’s remembered. Hector’s aged daughter seems to have forgotten to put his photo out, so he’s stuck in the land of the dead, sometimes flickering a little, almost out of existence. The daughter, in our world, is near the end of her life and forgetting him. Yes, Coco thrills with its of-the-moment visual invention, but its core elements — dead relatives, family photos, the power of loving memory — couldn’t be more timeless. When Pixar made me cry this time, it wasn’t just for the characters on the screen. It was for the people I remember, and the ones I hope will remember me.