In 2015, Pixar reminded everyone what they can do—make people laugh and cry in equal measure while reaching out to hug the nearest stranger—with Inside Out, but then they went on a run that included one admirable misfire (The Good Dinosaur) and two sequels (Finding Dory and Cars 3). The last couple years have not been Pixar’s best, but they’re poised to bounce back with Coco, the story of a boy who longs for more than his family’s provincial life, who must go where the (dead) people are to learn a lesson about family and belonging. Coco is a mash-up of tried and true Disney themes painted with Pixar’s distinctive brush. It is in turns cute, tear-jerking, and hella creepy.
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a musician like his hero, Ernesto De La Cruz, a legendary singer, but his family has banned music after a musician left his great-great-grandmother heartbroken. Miguel’s family shut out music and became shoemakers, but Miguel practices guitar in secret while watching old tapes of Ernesto De La Cruz. Then, thanks to a really-pushing-it thin premise, Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead on Día de los Muertos, where he pursues Ernesto, who he now believes to be his banished great-great-grandfather. Pixar’s best films are distinguished by strong openings (see also: Up and WALL-E), but Coco’s opening is a little tortured, contorting through plot devices and contrivances to ensure Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead. Once he’s there, though, Coco takes off.
Of course, if you’ve seen the Guillermo Del Toro-produced The Book of Life, Coco won’t look quite so spectacular, but if you haven’t, Coco’s take on the afterlife is a neon cornucopia of never-ending spectacle, from the tram system that carts skeletons about, to an EXCELLENT bit with Frida Kahlo, to the fanciful alebrijes, the spirit animals that roam the Land of the Dead. Miguel’s Virgil-esque guide through this world is Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a run-down skeleton desperate to cross over to the world of the living. In a cute bit, the dead have to pass through a TSA-like checkpoint and confirm their photo is placed on an ofrenda on Día de los Muertos. No one has put up Hector’s photo, so he cannot cross over.
And this is where Coco becomes irretrievably creepy. It’s not outright macabre like A Nightmare Before Christmas, but this is the most unintentionally WTF nightmare-inducing sh*t in a kids’ movie in recent memory. As Hector explains, if a skeleton is not remembered, they will fade permanently. Hector, whose photo is on no ofrenda, is beginning to fade, and he wants Miguel, once he’s restored to his living family, to put his photo on Miguel’s family ofrenda, so that Hector won’t die, permanently. Now, there’s a whole sweet moral about the importance of honoring family and treasuring loved ones even after they’re gone, but there are definitely some creepy-minded kids who will see the unintended lesson in Coco, and that is that your parents will die, you will die, everyone you know will die, and you might get to live in a fun skeleton circus for a while, but eventually everyone will forget you and you will literally fade into nothingness. Yay fun family movie!
Don’t get me wrong, Coco is perfectly enjoyable. It’s lovely to look at, Miguel is adorable, the music is great, and if the story is a little contrived, the (intended) message works. And it’s nice to see a movie like this aimed at a culture that isn’t white Middle America (although it does trend dangerously close to exoticism at times). But it does not seem like anyone thought through the implication of the “rules” of the Land of the Dead, because holy f*ck is that some stark sh*t for little kids. Also, besides the whole “you and everyone you love will die and be forgotten” thing, Miguel’s great-grandmother has Alzheimer’s, which is super…fun. Remember the grandma in Moana and how she was kooky? Well this abuela is slowly sliding into oblivion, forgetting her family one memory at a time! Happy Thanksgiving! But seriously, if you want to know whether or not your kid is creepy, ask them what lesson they learned from Coco. If they say, “You will die and I will forget you,” then congratulations, you’ve got a Goth.