Those we have lost are always with us, and that phenomenon is literal for a single day of the year in Coco, the latest Pixar Studios effort (and one of its very best). The setting is Mexico on el Dia de los Muertos (or "the Day of the Dead" for the non-Spanish-speaking). The land of the dead is an alternate plane of reality: It exists as a mirror of the real world, with the macabre elements informed by the layout of the land of the living. The dead appear as skeletons, though - this being a Pixar movie - the effect rather pleasantly recalls a Halloween costume and not something more genuinely frightening.
In life, their loved ones build a shrine of photos, called an ofrenda, that acts as a vessel. If the photo remains, that signifies to the dead that their loved ones still remember them. If the photo is removed or even damaged, their presence fades, and that means the memory of them in life is fading. We see it happen here, the effect both sobering and sorrowful. There is no one in life to remember this man, his accomplishments, or whatever he might have otherwise given to his loved ones while he lived. Now, one imagines, his progeny have gone ahead a few generations. Perhaps a grandchild who knew the man for a brief period has now passed. One would think the man would be joined by his loved ones, as so many are here.
This is a bleak view of the afterlife, particularly from a studio that specializes in primarily family-friendly entertainments, but the screenplay by Matthew Aldrich and co-director Adrian Molina refuses to adopt the bleakness of the film's worldview. Not until a third act that stacks revelation upon revelation for our young protagonist do Molina and director Lee Unkrich confront all sides and types of death. This includes two types that are equally morbid: One is the phenomenon of murder, an act that we witness in flashback (certainly a step beyond the norm for any animation studio), and the other is, perhaps, even worse: There is no after-afterlife. The man whose spirit fades away as we watch is lost forever to a realm unknown even by the dead. That's a different kind of death, certainly.
Lest this seem like a morose experience, one must remember that it comes from Pixar, so that means it is, at times, very funny and even hilarious on occasion. The skeletons of the dead - i.e., what we see when we look at them - easily fall apart without the physiology of a living body to keep them together more permanently. That leads to a lot of physical comedy, which is shared elsewhere by the antics of a silly dog whose tongue flaps awkwardly out of the left side of its mouth. The various settings are stunningly realized, from the bustling (if spare) city in which our protagonist's story begins to the living arrangements of the dead, who reside in teetering stacks of houses and structures. It's impossible to take in with one viewing, which means this is the usual joy of witnessing a Pixar creation.
The surprisingly elaborate plot follows Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest in a family of cobblers. His great-great-grandfather was a musician who left his wife and daughter to seek fortune, and his great-great-grandmother Imelda (voice of Alanna Ubach) banned the practice. A legend in town surrounds Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt), a musician who recalls Rodriguez in terms of his stated talent and the mythical circumstances of his fate (He died after a performance, at the end of which a large bell crushed him). Miguel, believing he could be the great-great-grandfather in question and that he should follow in Ernesto's footsteps, sets out to prove his parentage.
This places Miguel within the land of the dead when he stumbles across Ernesto's guitar, strums it after a perfectly timed split-second of awe, and is launched by its supernatural power into the presence of his old family members. Much to their chagrin, he teams up with another musician named Hector (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal) to find Ernesto. Surprises await, though (not least the shared history between Ernesto and Hector), and where another film in less skilled hands might have collapsed under the weight of so many revelations (many of which won't be terribly surprising to anyone who has seen a couple of Pixar's previous efforts), the filmmakers here respect the maturity of their audience.
The result is alternately thrilling, enjoyable, and genuinely moving, especially when a pop song (destined for end-of-the-year accolades, by the way), with which Ernesto reached the top of the music charts, is reconstituted in one of the final scenes to reach its maximal emotional potential and for the valuable things it has to say about family, legacy, memory, and the powerful, tangible connection between all of them. Coco has a whiff of familiarity in some of its brief reliance upon a pair of cliches in the final act (the reveal of a character's true nature and an ensuing chase that feels like an excuse to include a chase), but that is essentially a nitpick. This is one of the great recent achievements in animation - a red-blooded adventure tale and an intimately human story.
Featuring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector), Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz), Alanna Ubach (Imelda), Renee Victor (Abuelita), Sofia Espinosa (Mama), Jaime Camil (Papa), Alfonso Arau (Papa Julio), Herbert Siguenza (Tio Oscar/Tio Felipe), Gabriel Iglesias (Clerk), Lombardo Boyar (Gustavo/Plaza Mariachi), Ana Ofelia Murguia (Mama Coco), Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Frida Kahlo), Selene Luna (Tia Rosita), and Edward James Olmos (Chicharron).
Directed by Lee Unkrich, co-directed by Adrian Molina, and written by Molina and Matthew Aldrich.
Rated PG (thematic elements).
Released on November 22, 2017.