Spoilers for Coco ahead. The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos revolves around praying for and remembering the lives of friends and family members who have died. So a few years ago, when Pixar announced that its next project would be about the holiday, the idea seemed a bit contradictory. How was an animation studio known for bringing major laughs and happiness going to tackle a holiday that essentially revolves around death? Well, somehow, Pixar succeeded, as the resulting film, Coco, is lovely, funny, and incredibly moving — but still goes into some pretty dark territory. Seriously, not only does the movie deal with some serious topics that are rare for an animated film, but the huge twist in Coco goes to a place that Pixar has long avoided.
Coco, out Nov. 22, follows the story of 12-year-old Miguel, a young Mexican boy who longs to be a musician, but whose family of shoemakers has banned the practice of learning or even listening to music. Generations before Miguel was born, his great great grandfather left his wife and young daughter to pursue his dream of being a famous musician, and as a result, a hatred of music was passed down through generations. But Miguel is a natural, and cannot deny his own destiny of singing and playing traditional guitar. An act of rebellion on Día de los Muertos lands him in the land of the dead, however, and Miguel must fight his way back to life while solving a mystery at the same time.
The material gets pretty dark, and tissues are definitely necessary. Even before Miguel essentially "dies," Coco lands itself in territory very different from your typical Disney/Pixar movie. Unlike most other animated films, Coco uses death as an essential plot point, and skeletons are major characters. The movie ventures into the afterlife and features the ghosts of people who have passed away, sometimes tragically, and that element will probably lead to children asking adults some tough questions about what they're seeing on-screen.
Coco's darkness is also a reflection of our somber political times, as well. For example, the system set up for the dead to pass into the world of the living on Día de los Muertos is remarkably similar to a border crossing. There are customs agents, requirements for entry, time limitations, and rejections if certain criteria are not met. In Trump's America, where border walls are being considered and our Latinx and Hispanic citizens and residents are being threatened, it's jarring to see such a literal portrayal of immigration played out in an animated movie.
But Coco's most disturbing element is definitely the plot twist that comes as a result of Miguel unraveling the mystery of his great great grandfather. After much back-and-forth, Miguel learns that the man he thought was his great great grandfather actually was the man who murdered his great great grandfather, poisoning him when he threatened to break up their musical duo. The fact that Coco features this twist is a pretty huge deal. In Pixar films, the murder of one human by another isn't exactly commonplace. Sure, some of the supers in The Incredibles fought to the death or were killed by Syndrome, and other Pixar characters died of natural causes or in wild habitats, such as in Finding Nemo or The Good Dinosaur. The Toy Story heroes almost burned to death, even. But unlike those cases, the murder that takes place in Coco is very, very human. Even more, murder is something that, sadly, happens all the time, making Miguel's discovery much more real and tragic.
Yet, despite the fact that Coco deals with death and murder, it's probably one of the most life-affirming and moving films out there. By digging deep into dark territory, the movie emphasizes the fleeting nature of life, the importance of family, and the necessity of embracing the time we do have in this world. One message of the film, that our ancestors live on after death and that we will see them again, is uprooted by the story's use of "final death;" those in the land of the dead fade away permanently when those who are alive finally forget them. But without that element, there's no urgency, no loss, and no connection to our actual human lives. Coco is really unafraid of going to these uncomfortable, but inevitable places, journeying into the topic of death, and as a result is one of the best animated films to date about appreciating life.