Every great Pixar movie is basically a try-not-to-cry challenge. “Coco” is no different, although the worst thing I can say about it is that it didn’t make me verklempt in the way other Pixar movies, like “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3,” do. This, of course, has little bearing on my opinion of the film, since it effortlessly joins the animation studio’s expanding top tier of hits. Whenever Disney and Pixar are not in cash-grab mode (“Cars 2” / “Monsters University” / “Finding Dory” / “Cars 3”), they typically make genuine adventures with real emotional stakes, each new one exploring a different corner or culture of the world. For “Coco,” Pixar taps into the essence of Mexican life, music, family dynamics, and the meaning of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) as both celebration and tradition. The film is a rich, complex adventure that will captivate the audience it represents, enlighten others, and should have everyone reaching for tissues by the heartwarming denouement.
Miguel Rivera (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) was born with music in his heart, and has, so far, lived his childhood dreaming of becoming a famous musician. Alas, he is forced to keep that music within him since his family has banned all music from the household ever since Miguel’s forgotten great great grandfather left his wife and their little girl - Miguel’s senile great grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) - to pursue his own musical passions. As Miguel prepares to enter a talent show on Día de Muertos without his family’s knowledge, he is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, where he encounters all of his deceased relatives, including his great great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), as he hurries to return to the living world before it is too late.
There is much more to the plot that I dare not spoil, mainly because “Coco” takes a number of twists and turns in terms of familial revelation. Miguel uncovers buried truths about his family’s history that alter his perception of himself and everything he wants to be. These reveals are expertly plotted in and of themselves, but it is in their approach and setup where “Coco” takes a cue from Pixar’s earlier work. If you know how other great Pixar films play out, you subconsciously know how “Coco” will guide itself. But as with the studio’s earlier successes, “Coco” employs the hero’s journey template in full service of its own ideas and themes. It may build to emotional highs in familiar ways, but it does anything but replicate the emotions of its predecessors.
Where “Coco” truly stands out is in one of Pixar’s growing strengths as a creative force. Most will point to the unsurprisingly stellar animation, its use of color, and the narrative’s incorporation of music for its success. While all of these are exceptional (particularly the music, which is some of the catchiest I’ve heard since “La La Land”), “Coco” ultimately wins its audience through Pixar’s mastery of simplicity. With each new release, Pixar tops itself in finding ways to sell overwhelming emotions with the stillest of movements and the quietest of sounds. Here, we may well have just experienced the peak of that ability, as “Coco” wrings out tears with the gentlest resolution I’ve seen all year. The journey may feel a but old hat, but by the end, you probably won’t even bother to care. This is the best animated film of the year.