PIXAR’S latest offering is up there with Inside Out among the studio’s best features in years – less complex than Pete Docter’s 2015 film, but perhaps a tad more emotionally resonant.
Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy in Mexico whose greatest desire in life is to be a musician like his idol, the mid-century legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Alas, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband and the Rivera family has enforced an ironclad policy against music ever since.
Instead, each subsequent generation has gone into the family business of making shoes. (Shades of Hermey, the toy-making elf who wished to become a dentist.)
But could it be that de la Cruz was in fact Miguel’s long since written-off great-great-grandfather?
That certainly appears to be the case.
So in order to participate in a music competition on Día de Muertos, Miguel ‘borrows’ de la Cruz’s famous guitar, his own having been smashed earlier in the day by his grandmother.
But with the very first strum, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead.
There he meets departed members of his own family and ultimately, with the help of a trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), de la Cruz himself.
Directed by longtime Pixarian Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), the tale that unfolds from these beginnings is not terribly innovative (less so, for instance, than 2014’s similarly themed though less well-realized The Book of Life). But it is a tale told with considerable wit – this is one of Pixar’s funniest films – and genuine tenderness.
There are a few nice twists and reversals along the way. And while the movie’s conclusion is not difficult to see coming, anyone whose heart is not warmed by it may wish to consult with a cardio-therapist.
But where Coco shines most brightly – literally – is in its vibrant visuals, which rely on a palette of fluorescent greens, blues, yellows, and oranges.
In this telling, the Land of the Dead is not a fearsome place, but rather a never-ending skeleton party conducted in a glorious multi-tiered city that rises from sea-level houseboats to vast, imperious towers inhabited by celebrities such as de la Cruz—all of them connected by arched bridges and aerial trams.
Befitting its subject, this is the most musical feature yet produced by Pixar, with songs co-written by Robert Lopez, of The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, and Frozen fame.
There are clever pop-cultural nuggets scattered throughout: a Mac Plus that is condemned as a ‘devil box’ and smashed with a shoe; a gatehouse between the lands of the living and the dead that bears a distinct resemblance to the entrance to Disneyland; a hilariously avant-garde stage show put on by a deceased Frida Kahlo.
Here is a generous, heartfelt film, full of color and music, one that offers a timely Thanksgiving tribute to the intergenerational importance of family, so round up yours and take them to Coco.
■Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for the New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.