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After the Cars 3 lemon, Coco brings Pixar back to the Land of the New Classics.

The Book of Life

Miguel needs to get back to the Land of the Living
Miguel needs to get back to the Land of the Living

Even before Coco was released in the United States, it was already making movie history. Within 3 weeks of its release in Mexico, it became that country’s highest grossing movie. Ever. During that period, which coincided with very real Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, it rapidly captured $43 million USD at the box office and toppled the record previously set by Marvel’s The Avengers.

Any way you look at it, it’s good news for Disney.

At first blush, Day of the Dead doesn’t seem like the source material for a pleasant children’s movie. There was, after all, all that danger James Bond went through during the opening scenes of Spectre. But there’s also another animated movie out there, The Book of Life, produced by Guillermo del Toro and released in 2014, that also centers around the Day of the Dead. While there are certainly similarities in themes and story elements, Coco mines a richness and elegance that is simply incomparable.

The themes run a little dark and a little heavy, but they also work movie magic. In keeping with the themes of Dia de los Muertos, Coco is another member of the Pixar movie family that won’t be forgotten any time soon.

The Power of Music

The titular Coco is the grandmother of a young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez in his feature debut). Miguel loves music, but he lives in a family which has banished music entirely. It all dates back to his great grandparents and a romance gone bad. The jilted great grandmother, left in the lurch by a man driven to find success in the music business, from then on forbids any music from being played in her presence. In her house. In her surroundings. Forever. And ever.

That doesn’t sit well with Miguel, who sees music as a powerful – and positive – influence. Just look at his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Despicable Me 2). He’s the greatest musician of all time, and a movie star to boot. He went from nothing to superstardom with classic songs like Remember Me. And he lived life with one simple motto: Seize your moment. It’s even on his gravestone.

Miguel hides away in an attic, learning to play a homemade guitar while watching his idol via the magic of VHS tapes (elsewhere in this movie, an old school Macintosh computer can be spotted in an office).

Ernesto had to have faith in his dream; nobody was going to hand it to him, so he had to grab it. Those insights into his idol’s life inspire Miguel to strike out on his own as a musician and he’s convinced a scrap of evidence indicates he’s actually related to Ernesto.

By rights, then, Miguel sees no problem in “borrowing” the guitar enshrined at Ernesto’s gravesite. And that, in turn, becomes Miguel’s ticket to visit the Land of the Remembered, where he gets a whole heaping helping of life’s lessons.

Leave It Behind

Most animated fare is skewed young. Pixar typically breaks the mold by telling intelligent stories with smart humor that crosses generational appeal. That’s why Pixar movies routinely top the family fare box office (consider the ones that don’t: Cars 3 and The Good Dinosaur are particularly weak entries in the Pixar canon).

Coco, oddly enough, skews older purely by the depth of the subject matter and the heft of the underlying themes. Part of that adult sensibility also comes from some truly elegant cinematography from Pixar veterans Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg that at times makes Coco feel more like a live action movie than an animated feature. It doesn’t hurt to throw in a “cameo” by art world icon Frida Kahlo and voice talent supplied by Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, Alfonso Arau and Gael Garcia Bernal.

The story goes into matters of family, death and what people leave behind. Hopefully, what’s left behind are fond memories. The kind that – in the context of the Day of the Dead – allows family ancestors to stay in the Land of the Remembered, where their spirits are allowed to visit the Land of the Living and also avoid an eternal end in the Land of the Forgotten.

And Miguel also learns that in addition to keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, it might be a good idea to keep your heroes at a safe distance.

Last Thanksgiving saw the release of Moana, a top-notch animated musical and a production which launched extensive cultural research efforts by Disney in order to remain true to the very real legends of the Pacific. Pixar’s taken a similar approach with Coco and, at the conclusion of the end credits, even invites viewers to learn more by visiting – get this – their local library.