Four and a half years ago, Disney•Pixar told theater owners at CinemaCon in Las Vegas about their plans to develop a film centered on the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. It was an exciting prospect, but also too early in development and too far away to know if it would actually happen. Then the title, Coco, and first footage were revealed at D23 Expo in August 2015 and it became very real. This week, Coco arrives in U.S. theaters as an instant classic that is more than worth the wait.
Coco centers on a young boy, Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), who must weigh his love of music against the love for his family. The Rivera family has had a generations-long ban on music ever since Miguel’s great great grandfather walked out on his great great grandmother and their daughter, Miguel’s great grandma, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), to go be a musician. The Riveras don’t make music; they make shoes, but Miguel has never met a guitar he didn’t want to play.
As the family prepares for Día de los Muertos, a holiday in which family members who’ve passed on are remembered and invited to spend time with the living in whatever way they can, Miguel hopes to kickstart his musical dream with a performance at a local talent show. To do so, he needs a new guitar and decides to borrow one from the mausoleum of his departed hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s the perfect plan until one strum of the six strings crosses Miguel over from the realm of the living to that of the dead.
In a panic, Miguel literally bumps into his departed family members who bring him up to speed while they try to help him cross back over before it’s too late. It is through this experience that Miguel learns the importance of Día de los Muertos and Coco shows us its heart.
Coco is magnificent filmmaking on its surface with vibrant colors coming together to produce stunning visual sequences. It goes beyond eye candy, however, as it works incredibly well on multiple thematic levels. The first and most obvious theme is that of family and how remembering our past enriches our present while also keeping those who are gone alive in the only place they can be, our hearts. Coco absolutely nails that theme and uses it well to make you laugh, cry, and above all, remember.
Miguel’s journey also explores the heart of the artist. Miguel isn’t going to leave the land of the dead without meeting his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, and he reluctantly enlists Héctor (Gael Garcí Bernal) to help find the superstar singer. All Héctor wants is to be remembered by what remains of his living family as Miguel considers leaving his own family forever if staying means he can’t play music.
For Miguel, music is a passion of which he simply cannot let go. It is just as big of a part of his identity as his family, which is why he hates the notion of having to make a choice between them. He needs both.
The path to de la Cruz puts Miguel through an important test, as he must determine the purity of his passion. He has to figure out if what he cares about most is creating music, or the potential fame and fortune that come with it. After all, it is possible to play music without leaving one’s family behind, especially if the act of artistic expression is allowed to serve as its own reward.
The stakes in Coco are very real. They might seem small, but in context, they are everything. No one wants to be forced to live without their passion and no one wants to be forgotten. You will start committing your ancestors to memory as soon as you see Coco and discover the beauty of Día de los Muertos. If you’ve never celebrated the holiday before, you might start.
Disney•Pixar has set a high bar with classics such as the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles, and Inside Out. It is no easy feat, but Coco reaches out and grabs that exact same bar. It is a beautiful film, full of visual and emotional magic. Bring the whole family, laugh, love, shed some tears, and remember those who still fill your heart even if they can’t fill a seat.
Coco is in theaters November 22.