It's impossible to talk about a movie from Pixar without acknowledging the news about the company's long-time leader: John Lasseter on Tuesday took a six month leave of absence from the Disney-owned animation studio, following reports that he has spent years making women uncomfortable at the workplace, in part by putting his lips and hands where they were not welcome. Lasseter undoubtedly has a big influence on all Pixar movies, and so it's important to recognize that here, before reviewing “Coco.”
That said, Lasseter didn't direct the latest Pixar movie, so there's no conflict to reviewing or endorsing it. And "Coco" is a movie that very much deserves a full-throated endorsement.
Over a two decade span, Pixar has made movies about white people, toys, insects, monsters, cars, robots, fish, dinosaurs, emotions, and even rats. "Coco," the studio's 19th feature, marks the first time it has told a story about persons of color, and though that makes the movie incredibly overdue, it's also perfectly timed.
"Coco" is about a loving extended family in Mexico, and as the big Thanksgiving weekend release, families across the United States — a country that just elected a president who promised to build a wall along the southern border — will be watching a movie that should make them rethink their support for such an inhumane, divisive stance.
Another note about timing: "Coco" is being released in the United States a month after beginning its run in Mexico, where it has already becoming the biggest box office hit in history. The release there was timed to the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is the much more spiritual equivalent of Halloween. It's a family holiday, in which people gather in cemeteries to pay tribute to their late relatives, which is a much more celebratory way of dealing with mortality than most American traditions.
The movie follows a young boy named Miguel who has little interest in celebrating the holiday with his family; he's most focused on playing guitar in the town square's talent competition, much like his late idol, the musical legend Ernesto de la Cruz, who is best described as a kind of Mexican Elvis. Miguel's parents and grandmother are none too pleased with his alternative interests — his dad wants him to learn shoemaking, the family trade, and his grandmother is insistent that he spends the day honoring his late relatives.
But there's one relative she won't talk about: Her grandfather, who has been ripped out of a photo that sits on the mantle during Dia de los Muertos. The beheading wasn't just done out of spite; the old myth goes that if you're not represented on the mantle, your spirit can't come back and visit your family.
And that's a problem, because "Coco" spends much of its time with the spirits of Miguel's late ancestors, who cross a special threshold back to earth for the 24-hour celebration. They get a hell of a surprise when they're joined by Miguel himself, who receives an incredibly harsh punishment when he tries to steal Ernesto's legendary guitar from his mausoleum.
No, the kid doesn't get killed, but he does cross over to the afterlife, where he immediately starts to turn into a skeleton. It's a very morbid spin on the “Back to the Future” photograph trope, in that Miguel is in danger of permanently turning into a skeleton (and really dying) if he can't get back to the other side — which of course, requires a long journey and important moral lessons.
The movie is incredibly sweet, and is also Pixar's most visually captivating, which is no easy feat; this is the studio that mainstreamed computer animation, and continues to push its limits with new discoveries and technological advances. The colors throughout the Day-Glo afterlife are absolutely breathtaking, and the clarity of the characters — even though they're still cartoonish — is unparalleled. It is a movie that should be seen on the big screen, or at the very least, on an ultra-sharp HD or even 4K TV.
There are some nice twists and turns in the story, which again, is a bit morbid — we see a young kid slowly dying in front of our eyes, though they never actually put it that way. And even when it gets treacly, or too neat, or too predictable, well, remember that it's a kid's movie. And in that context especially, a movie about the beauty of an unfairly maligned culture, replete with music and vibrant colors and beautiful animation, is something to be very thankful for.