The Land of the Dead may seem like curious territory for an animation house like Pixar, one indebted to smooth edges, bouncy voices, and general feel goodery. Even the direst and darkest moments in the studio’s oeuvre—Inside Out’s tribute to the ubiquity of sadness, The Good Dinosaur’s patchwork tapestry of trauma, or the inferno that nearly consumed our mass-produced compatriots raw at the end of Toy Story 3—have been filtered through its grander milieu: one wholesome, happy, and humane.
Its pioneering foray into the morbid notwithstanding, Coco has no aversion to Pixar’s usual good nature. The film has an overarching affection for the idea of family, as seen foremost in the spirit of our young hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Though unique among his long bloodline of Mexican shoemakers and dogmatic music-haters as a (secretly) aspiring guitarist, Miguel strives desperately to please and do right by the family he loves.
Coco doesn’t confine its Disney-caliber heart and soul to the mortal realm, either; no sweetness is lost upon Miguel’s impromptu voyage into the Land of the Dead, which may disappoint some fans who hope the shift might turn ghoulish. Design-wise, Coco’s Land of the Dead is more whimsical than chilling; there are slapstick skeletons, floating cityscapes, luminous critters, and nonstop good vibes. Needless to say, a few rungs shy of what Tim Burton and Henry Selick would deem appropriately haunting.
But Coco does have a dark touch by Pixar’s standards, sneaking in a considerably macabre embrace of death—as a looming threat, a plot point, and a source of comedy—right under the skull holes where our noses used to be. Little by little, the film leans deeper into its inclination toward the grisly, reaping the most sinister turn of events to pass muster in a Disney writing room since somebody okayed the idea of Scar framing his preadolescent nephew for axing papa Mufasa.
Complementing these third act tonal contortions—perhaps even saving them—are some of the most flavorful bursts of merriment on display in latter day Pixar. From beginning to end, Coco exhibits a wonderful sense of humor, as much of it drawn from charming visual gags as from genuine character work.
Once trapped in the Land of the Dead, Miguel finds himself crossing paths with a giddily eclectic assortment of long-deceased relatives, ruled with an iron capitate by family matriarch Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach). Miguel’s quest to meet his lifelong hero, the late musician and movie star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), teams him up with netherworld pariah Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) -- the film’s strongest comic and empathetic partnership.
The assortment of supporting players lining the densely populated world of the departed, from grumbling civil servants to wistful forgotten souls to a delightfully batty Frida Kahlo, lend to some of Coco’s funniest and sweetest material. That said, a wealth of the smiles provoked by Coco come from Dante, the dimwitted stray dog who follows Miguel into the Land of the Dead and into every bout of danger to follow.
For all its efforts to bob and weave, Coco is not especially successful at delivering surprise; anyone with a casual familiarity of the Pixar methodology will jog a few steps ahead of the narrative at a comfortable pace. Still, the journey from alive to dead and back again is a delight. It's consistently sweet, often funny, occasionally startling, and armed with some tremendously catchy tunes. And even if you're not on board with any of that, believe me: the dog goes a long way.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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