By Jia Tolentino ~ June 16, 2018
“Coco” is a movie about borders more than anything—the beauty in their porousness, the absolute pain produced when a border locks you away from your family.
Photograph Courtesy Pixar
In the weeks since that viewing, “Coco” love has continued to spread among my demographic—thanks, in part, to the movie’s release on Netflix in May. “Coco” is unlike any film I can think of: it presents death as a life-affirming inevitability; its story line about grudges and abandonment makes you feel less alone. The protagonist, Miguel, is a twelve-year-old boy in the fictional Mexican town of Santa Cecilia—named for the patron saint of musicians—and he is trying to get out from under the shadow of his great-great-grandfather, who left his family to pursue a career as a musician. His wife, the ferocious Mamá Imelda, was left to take care of their young daughter, Coco. She instituted a permanent household ban on music and started making shoes.
We meet Coco as an old woman. Her daughter, Miguel’s grandmother, now runs the family and its shoemaking business with an iron chancla. Earnest, sweet Miguel teaches himself to play the guitar in the attic, watching and re-watching tapes of the bygone star Ernesto de la Cruz. On the Day of the Dead, he accidentally shatters a framed photograph on the family ofrenda, then spots a hidden detail in the picture, one that makes him suspect that his wayward ancestor was in fact de la Cruz himself. He sprints to the town mausoleum, hoping to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar and prove the value of music to his family. Instead, the guitar turns Miguel invisible, and whisks him across a skybridge covered in thick, soft marigold petals that glow like lava. He falls to his knees in the petals, and then looks up to see a grand floating metropolis, confetti-colored in the darkness: the Land of the Dead.
The second and third acts of the movie are mostly set in this city of jubilant sugar-skull skeletons, where you exist only as long as you are remembered by the living. (You can cross over to the living world on the Day of the Dead, but only if your photo is on display.) Miguel joins up with a raggedy show-biz hustler named Héctor, who’s desperate to get his picture back up on an ofrenda, and who says he can bring Miguel to de la Cruz. Héctor lives in a waterfront shantytown filled with people who are about to be forgotten; at one point, he begs a guitar for Miguel off an ill-tempered cowboy named Chicharrón, who vanishes as soon as Héctor finishes singing an old dirty song.
Eventually, Miguel realizes that Héctor is his real ancestor, and the movie sprints to a conclusion that’s as skillfully engineered to produce waterworks as the montage at the beginning of “Up.” But until the end, “Coco” is mostly, wonderfully, a mess of conflict and disappointment and sadness. Héctor seems to have failed everyone who takes a chance on him. Miguel’s face, painted in skeleton camouflage, often droops as if he were a sad little black-and-white dog. “Coco” is animated by sweetness, but this sweetness is subterranean, bursting through mostly in tiny details: the way that both Mamá Imelda and Miguel’s grandmother brandish shoes when they’re angry; or how the daffy Xolo dog that accompanies Miguel on his adventure is named Dante; or how the skeletons return to their city through the Day of the Dead’s efficient T.S.A. system, declaring the churros and beer that their families gave them for their journey home.