Coco (2017)

Directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

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At a certain point you’d expect the emotion of a Pixar movie to feel forced, the characters’ cuteness manufactured and the climax a little too perfect, and it all is, but it still works.  Coco is f*cking adorable.  It hits many of the same beats as other Pixar films, notably Up, but man they know what they’re doing.

The movie is funny, cute, sad but finally life-affirming.  It’s a kids’ movie, of course, but it touches on death and memory, and there are messages that will resonate with anyone.  It’s also a film about dia de los muertos, one which might encourage empathy with other cultures simply by taking time to explore a world many (myself included) may not know a whole lot about.

Our hero is Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a kid living in a small Mexican village who loves to play music.  The problem, he tells us, is that his family absolutely forbids any kind of music because of the sins of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, a man who left his family behind to pursue music and never returned.

Miguel’s great-great-grandmother is the one whose anger has passed down through the generations so that Miguel’s own grandmother strongly enforces this sort of nonmusical family tradition.

Miguel decides he wants to perform in a talent competition in the town plaza, so he sneaks up to his small hideout, a shrine to famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz and daydreams about his hero.  The shrine parallels the altars put up by each family for dia de los muertos and which Miguel hides under as he attempts to sneak out to the plaza with his guitar but is nearly caught by his grandmother.  One thing leads to another, and Miguel finds himself unable to prevent the photo of his great-great-grandmother and grandmother Coco from falling to the ground.  Miguel discovers that the headless body of his great-great-grandfather (the top of the photo has been torn out of spite) is none other than Ernesto de la Cruz.  He figures this out by identifying Cruz’ famous guitar in a portion of the photo which has been folded back to fit inside the frame.

 

Miguel is excited by this revelation and shows this to his family who reacts as you might expect given the music ban.  His grandmother shatters his guitar, and Miguel runs away.  He reaches the graveyard and, more importantly, the lavish grave of Ernesto de la Cruz who hailed from the same small town.  In order to play in the talent competition, Miguel steals Cruz’ guitar.  According to Mexican folklore, stealing from the dead is a curse, and Miguel finds himself transported to the land of the dead.

What’s great about Pixar movies, structurally, is how they adhere to the ideas laid out in so many screenwriting books.  You have the “inciting incident” midway through the first act followed by the “lock in” which forces us into act 2.  The clearest way of ‘locking in’ a character is to have them go into a new world from which they can’t return unless they continue on the path ahead.  Another example is Dorothy finding herself in the land of Oz or the house in Up floating away.

There’s no going back, in other words.  In Coco, after Miguel finds himself trapped in the land of the dead, there is actually a quick fix.  He just needs a relative to bless him, lifting the curse and sending him back to the land of the living.  His great-great-grandmother (or her skeleton) gives him this blessing under the condition that he never again plays music.  Miguel reluctantly agrees, finds himself back home, but the moment he grabs Cruz’ guitar he finds himself right back in the land of the dead.

So there’s a way out, but Miguel is locked in by his own stubborn yet understandable will.  Rather than accept his great-great-grandmother’s terms and conditions, he sets off to find the spirit/skeleton of Ernesto de la Cruz because, as Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, he can offer him a blessing.  In other words, Miguel wants the blessing that will allow him to continue pursuing music in the land of the living.

Miguel runs away while his deceased family members are in pursuit.  He quickly meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a spirit (from now on I’m referring to the skeletons as spirits) who desperately wants to get back to the land of the living but can’t because his family has not left his picture on the altar.

Miguel overhears Hector say that he knows Ernesto de la Cruz, and in Miguel Ernesto identifies someone who can take his picture to the land of the living, thus giving him the passage he’s looking for.  They agree to help each other.

At the midpoint of the film there is another talent show which Hector persuades Miguel to join.  The winner will get to perform at a lavish party hosted by Ernest de la Cruz, but when Miguel’s family shows up, it forces Miguel to hide.  Hector learns that this entire time Miguel has had access to the land of the living, and they get into a bit of a fight.

The second act comes to a close with Miguel’s arrival at Ernesto de la Cruz’ party.  He makes his presence known, and when he tells the famous singer that they’re related, they begin to bond.  You know something’s off, however, because of how smoothly this goes.  Like in Up, the idolized hero turns out to be the ultimate villain.

Hector shows up, and we learn that he and Cruz were once songwriting partners before Hector decided to return home to his family.  Cruz couldn’t take this so he poisoned his friend.  Then Hector is banished to a pit, and Miguel is not far behind when Cruz reasons that he can’t expect the boy to stay quiet about this revelation which clearly tarnishes Cruz’ legacy.

In the pit, Miguel realizes that Hector was his great-great-grandfather and not Cruz.  They work together, soon with the help of the rest of Miguel’s family, to get to Cruz in order to retrieve the photo of Hector which Cruz has stolen (again, in order to preserve Hector’s memory).  I should mention that as this is going on, Hector begins to fade because, we learn, if no one is left to remember you, you disappear from the land of the dead.

Anyways, the final act deals with family working together to take down the big bad.  There are all the familiar storytelling beats of the “all is lost” moment as well as the final triumph and everything in between.  Everything set up before now pays off, making it so that Miguel is able to return home with his great-great-grandmother’s blessing.  Along the way everyone else finds what they’re looking for.

Back in the land of the living, Miguel tries to get his great-grandmother, Coco, to remember her father, Hector.  Coco is very, very old and her memory fading.  Miguel sings a song, “Remember Me,” and the rest of the family can’t get mad because Coco begins to sing along, helping her remember her father and thus preserving his memory.

We fast-forward to a year later, on the next dia de los muertos to see that everything has worked out just fine.

Pixar movies like Coco show that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a successful, moving, effective film.  Like with Up (when the old man turns the final page and reads the words of his deceased wife), this is a fairly conventional story arc that is loaded with engaging themes and ideas and a moving final beat.

[I just spent the previous thirty minutes watching clips of Up on Youtube and then reading through the first 20+ pages of the screenplay].

Pixar’s movies often feel so formulaic when you break them down and perhaps even while you’re watching them, but they just execute the formula so damn well.  We know there will be a moving moment near the end of the film and some kind of musical refrain that we will see in a new context.  In Up it’s the song that plays during the montage of Carl’s & Ellie’s life together which we revisit near the end but with the song played in the minor key.  In Coco there are multiple instances of the song, “Remember Me.”  The first time it’s a joyful, upbeat song and near the end it’s a melancholic, almost tragic plea in the face of impending mortality.

Pixar’s Inside Out was all about emotion.  The characters themselves were different emotions, and it’s a film that tells you it’s okay to feel sad, as well as envious and all the other non-happy emotions.  Joy learns that we need Sadness and that these emotions all work together to make us human.

Just about every Pixar movie (other than a few exceptions) seems to tell us that it’s okay to feel.  I mean, it’s telling kids that it’s okay to feel, but it’s also telling adults that too.  You can expect a reasonable amount of silliness in a Pixar picture just as you can anticipate a light tugging of the emotional heartstrings Pixar’s movies are joyful and incredibly sincere.  It’s heartwarming that so many people enjoy this sincerity because so much of pop culture now revels in sarcasm and intended wit, often at someone’s expense.  The world says “I’m too good for this,” but Pixar says “f*ck off, we all have feelings” except without the cursing.

Coco, like Up and Wall-E and other Pixar movies, is life-affirming and lathered in wholesome, sincere goodness.  I wish the world was more like a Pixar film.

Up Next: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Revolutionary Road (2008)

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