"I-Yi-yi, Muchacho, I Asked for a Shoe-Shine, Not Your Life-Story!!"
Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) aspires to something more; he is trapped in "the only family in Mexico that hates music." How could such a thing happen, especially to him? Music, to him, is in his soul and in his heritage.
And that's the issue. In the distant past—last century—there was a family scandal: His great-great-grandfather left the family to selfishly pursue a career in music and was never heard from again, leaving his wife Imelda and their daughter Coco to fend for themselves. They did so by making shoes and now the entire Rivera family—many generations—is wrapped up in the family business. As Grandmother Abuelita (Renee Victor) says: "Music tore our family apart, but shoes brought us together."
Until now. Miguel wants to tear that tradition apart, resisting the cobbler lifestyle of his family. He takes inspiration from the charismatic hero of his town Santa Cecilio, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a singing matinee idol, who died—tragically (but not unamusingly)—in 1942. His legacy—and his mausoleum—is a vital part of Santa Cecilio and for a boy with music in his soul, Miguel can't help but be influenced by the crooner who touched so many hearts and whose inspirational message is "Seize Your Moment."
But, Miguel must bide his time. He spends what time he can in his home away from home (known only to the street dog he's befriended, Dante), paying homage to de la Cruz by endlessly watching the old VHS tape of his old movies and playing along on a guitar that he has decorated like his idol's, examining his every move and learning to play the guitar just like his hero. His collection is like a shrine, not unlike the ofrenda in the Rivera house paying tribute to their ancestors (in preparation for the Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead). Like most altars, it is where sacrifices must be made.
Music is Miguel's little secret from his family. He may protest his aspirations to them (especially to grandmama Ebuelita), but he will catch hell for even broaching the subject, much as he tries to explain. She loves her grandson, sure, but she also loves her ancient mother Coco, whose father left the family so many years ago, and the past slights cannot be softened by a newcomer like Miguel, who has not endured the pain over the years, and can be said to have not endured at all. Music sends her into a shoe-throwing rage, and as the holiday approaches and Miguel announces his intention to enter a talent contest, she will have none of it, smashing the guitar that he would use to prove his abilities.
An issue with the Rivera's ofrenda has shown him the old family portrait—the father's face torn away from it—but the guitar, the guitar the missing father is holding in the picture, is the same as the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz. Young Miguel can come to only one conclusion: Ernesto de la Cruz must be his missing great-great-grandfather. With such knowledge, how can Miguel do anything but try and fulfill his destiny, seize his moment, because music is not only in his soul, it is in his blood.
Miguel is just a child. He does not know much and has very little perspective beyond himself, what he sees and what he feels. His knowledge is very limited—he's just a kid, after all. He doesn't even know what he does not know. But, he is about to get a big education and it will impact his world, his family, but more importantly, his knowledge of it...and its worth.
In the mausoleum of de la Cruz, he ecstatically strums the strings of the guitar, and he and his world completely changed. He is transported, emotionally, yes, but he is also taken somewhere else. He doesn't yet notice that beneath his feet are marigold petals (which were not there before), nor does he notice that when he leaves the mausoleum, he is only there in spirit, passing through the bodies of people—as if he were a ghost. Indeed, he is...in spirit, at least. For he has transported himself to the land of the Dead, separated from our world, but bridged by glowing arches of marigold petals (and yes, you need some sort of I.D. to cross over, but...really, you should see the film. This world, dimension (whatever) is inhabited by the souls of the departed, and before long Miguel runs into dead uncles and aunts, even his great-great grandmother Imelda, who will grant his wish to go back to the living, but...on one condition: he must give up music. For Miguel, this is an impossible dilemma—if music is his life, how can he give it up? But, he cannot return to the living...if it is part of his life.
This is very rich material, even on a simple story level (and I've barely scratched the surface of it!). But, one of the simultaneous beauties and achievements of the Pixar Studio (this is their 19th film) is their ability to enrich the story with stunning, complex visuals, empathetic characters, and hard-learned lessons. Even when you think they cannot possibly surpass what they bring to the animated feature, Pixar goes beyond...and in completely unexpected and sophisticated ways. How often have I said to myself "this is their best film yet" Ratatouille? Inside Out?) But, they keep getting better. There may be a stumble here and there—The Good Dinosaur (which thematically, is similar to Coco), any of the "Cars" movies, frankly—but even those are stepping-stones to the advancement of the story-telling craft and the art of recreating, digitally, a realistic, and frequently uber-realistic representation of life and Nature. I say, Nature, but there's one thing they don't do very well—"The Uncanny Valley." Pixar seems to avoid the technological pit-falls that keep an audience from seeing what they present as reality. I would say "nimbly" but there's never been an instance where they have been even close to the edge of failing to anticipate issues—from story-planning to background to character-design—that might cause some type of discomfiture with their intricately-honed images that take hundreds of artist-hours and terrabytes of computer-power to create.
Coco is festooned with the most intricate of details in eye-popping colors that defy traditional hues and standards but reflect the celebratory folk-art of Mexico. The movie centers around the Day of the Dead and imbues that celebration's playfulness with things underworldly—far more affectionate than Tim Burton's mordant sensibility. Death is a mjor theme, but it never rises anywhere near a horror level (so the kids are alright, despite any protests from nervous-nelly Anglo's) and emphasizes continuity with the past, remembrance, and the impact of ancestors in our lives. The dead are not to be feared, but revered, and coco drives the point home with one of its story-points. In its pixelated land of the dead, souls do not pass on until there is no one left among the living who retains a memory of that person. No one truly dies unless they are forgotten, the final death of a soul who has outlived its impact.
The retention of memory takes on a life or death importance—without it, there;s only non-existence, the last vestige of a soul, even if only a spark in the mind. A flame in the heart.
Forget any other movie coming out this holiday season, Coco is must-see family fare, worth even wallowing Disney's pre-feature short "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" which, appropriately left me cold. Coco will melt any lasting chill it evokes. Let nothing stand in your way.
Like the best of Pixar's films, it both expands the mind and expands the heart. It is a movie with a lot of souls.