The question that has shadowed animation fans for decades has been, “Why doesn’t Pixar do a musical?” This became especially true after Pixar acquired Disney, but the great studio has left animated musicals to the Disney side until now. There is room to argue whether the new Pixar film Coco qualifies as a proper musical. I’ll let other people debate that and instead tell you that this film’s Mexican setting and immersion in the rites of Día de los Muertos have given the studio new life.
The story concerns Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy living in a town called Santa Cecilia who dreams of becoming a musician, just like fellow Santa Cecilian Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), a now-deceased and revered music and film star. However, Miguel’s large family of shoemakers forbids music because the boy’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue his musical dreams. You’ll get no points for guessing that Miguel discovers that Ernesto was that ostracized ancestor of his, though there’s a further twist on that that’s cleverly done. A family curse traps Miguel in the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos, and he has to team up with a hustler skeleton named Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal) to find Ernesto and get his blessing so Miguel can return to the land of the living.
I suspect I’d be more impressed with the look of this film if the similarly themed animated film The Book of Life hadn’t come out three years ago. Both movies depict the afterlife as a colorfully lit-up version of Mexico City, with its houses stacked on the steep sides of the surrounding mountains. Coco does much to add to that, though, starting with the breathtaking sight of the bridge between worlds as a huge structure in the sky covered entirely with glowing marigold petals. The backstory of the Rivera family is given through animated papel picado banners in the opening sequence, the sepia-toned look of old Mexican films is skillfully copied, and the giant luminescent alebrijes (spirit animals) who guide people in the next world are fearsome, magnificent creatures. By useful contrast, Ernesto’s celebrity mansion in the next world is a funny explosion of excess and bad taste. The sight gags involving the skeletal characters in the land of the dead aren’t as inventive as the ones in other Pixar movies, but you’ll still have plenty to look at here.
As well as listen to. The songs, written in a wide variety of Mexican styles, are mostly by Germaine Franco and screenwriter/co-director Adrian Molina. The grown-up actors in this nearly all-Latino cast (the only exception is Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger) are not known for their singing, but they make a good fist of it; Bratt with Ernesto’s signature song “Remember Me” (by the Frozen team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and García Bernal with Héctor’s sad comic song “Everyone Knows Juanita.” The truly great singer in this cast is the young Gonzalez, who has a few acting credits but is better known as a musical performer on Mexican and American TV. He sings a charming son jarocho duet with García Bernal in “Un Poco Loco,” and he’s downright stellar in “The World Es Mi Familia” and the triumphant final number “Proud Corazón.”
The last third of this movie probably keeps it from being among Pixar’s greatest achievements. Miguel’s sense of duty to both his family and the musical career that they won’t tolerate is managed ingeniously but not as neatly as you’d hope. The unmasking of the bad guy is particularly clumsy, and the climax of the action with Miguel back among the living trying to bring back a memory from his great-grandmother Coco (voiced by Ana Ofelia Murguía) is soppy stuff.
These are relatively small complaints. Because this is Pixar’s first movie about nonwhite people, there is that extra bit of pressure on it to succeed. Coco does so in a way that shows these filmmakers completely immersed in the ways of this foreign culture that has exercised so much influence up north. It makes you wonder what Pixar could do with Hanukkah, Chinese New Year, or Eid al-Fitr, but for now, let’s just savor the sights and sounds of this latest Pixar win, achieved in unique fashion.
Voices by Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, and Benjamin Bratt. Directed by Lee Unkrich. Written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich. Rated PG.