“Coco” is not named for its protagonist.
Nor is it named for the bad guy. Nor for the central plot device, in which a Mexican lad, on the feast of Dia de los Muertos, is suddenly whisked off to the land of the dead.
Coco, rather, is a tertiary character -- extremely aged and virtually immobile, with only a handful of scenes and lines.
Is that counterintuitive, or what?
Yes, “Coco” is another innovative triumph for Pixar -- a winsome blend of solid story-telling, knock-out visuals and buoyant Latin music.
Its main character, Miguel, yearns to pursue singing and guitar; but his entire family hates music -- due to a long-ago fiasco that left Coco (the current matriarch) without a father when she was very young.
Convinced he’s the son of long-dead superstar Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel tries to steal the man’s guitar from his tomb and winds up in a fantastical after-life populated by gaily colored spirit-creatures and millions of the dead -- including some of Miguel’s own ancestors.
According to the custom of this place, Miguel must return to the living before sunrise, or become a permanent (i.e, dead) resident; in order to do so, he needs a blessing from one of his ghostly ancestors -- but since they hate music too (especially Coco’s mom), they won’t provide the send-off unless he pledges never to sing or play again.
So Miguel seeks Ernesto instead, aided by a misfit dead guy named Hector, who needs a reciprocal favor: MIguel must carry Hector’s photo back to the living and hang it somewhere, since no one from the dead can return on Dia de los Muertos unless a live person thus cherishes their memory.
Hector, you see, is on the outs, and nobody in the real world seems to recall him; in fact, it’s a tenet of the film that when no living person remembers you anymore, you also disappear from the afterlife as well -- dying, as it were, a second death.
This is far more plot summary than I normally provide; but Pixar’s strength has always been its storylines -- and the depth of its themes, as apparent here from the powerful intersection of family, music and death.
The “live on through memories” notion didn’t work for me, as it would grant eternal life to monsters like Attila and Hitler, while relegating humble working folk to oblivion after a generation or two. And I was likewise leery of the the “family above all” idea; perhaps Miguel’s hopes and dreams would be equally important?
Nonetheless, it’s a rare family film that generates such deep considerations -- and an even rarer one that’s so deliciously entertaining at the same time. (Watch especially for Miguel’s two amazingly conceived and animated spirit-guides.)
On top of its beauty, comedy and excitement, “Coco” is an emotional powerhouse, resolving its conflicts in a blissful, happily-ever-after ending that will leave viewers floating out of the theater on clouds of joy.
Coco herself may seem like a minor player, but her movie certainly isn’t.
directed by Lee Unkrich
Run time: 109 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG for thematic elements