In an attic hideout, young Miguel not only hides a stash of memorabilia of legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz, but also his own secret longing to become a musician himself. Trouble is, his small village life in Mexico is already predetermined to follow in his family tradition of making shoes and shunning music. But the discovery that Cruz is the great-great grandfather that abandoned the family and spurred their rules against music sends Miguel on a journey to the spirit world to reconcile the two halves of his heart. In so many ways, Coco feels deeply personal.
Pixar has dealt in family themes before, but this film is one about our place in a family line, of how what defines us as an individual can become a shared experience, a fabric. Set during Día de los Muertos, Coco is reverent in its representation and gorgeously so, but the film culturally embodies more than its visual selling points. This is a beautiful film of legend and legacy where the hero of the story is the ties that bind.
Coco strums along with umpteen musical numbers and each of them kill. The centerpiece “Remember Me” (or “Recuérdame”) repeats throughout, gaining meaning and evolving context until it becomes a weepy singalong, swoony classic for the Disney history books. This one song covers Coco’s full emotional breadth and molds to its tonal shifts to an enviable degree, more film defining than even its Disney contemporaries “How Far I’ll Go” and “Let It Go”. It’s that special.
Coco’s largest detriment is its predictability. There are a few familiar narrative threads running here – rebelling against a family-prescribed role, long-lost paternal figure, Wonderland fantasy – so the story beats roll in shortly after you anticipate them. It’s as if the filmmakers are playing it too safe with formula because they are presenting characters and a family dynamic that is underrepresented. It does, however, speak to the genuine joy that the film originates from that what Coco leaves us with is its very loving embrace. Though its endpoint is so clearly projected, that doesn’t diminish the moving payoff once it arrives.
Because for the minor unease Coco has in making an inventive story of its uncommon setting, it is completely relaxed in provide a wallop of emotion. This film is very in sync to the Pixar brand of sticking us right where we feel it most, whether young or old. Here directors Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich (tear thief behind Finding Nemo) build a stockpile of emotional entry points like the threads of a story, pulling in charged themes of familial estrangement, disenfranchisement, and dementia. The result is as beautiful as any of the visuals on screen, and more convincing than the simplistic story around it.