I thought I disliked Olaf the snowman because he falls apart all the time, but I didn’t dislike Miguel’s skeleton ancestors in Coco when they fell apart (over and over again) in the oddly godless land of the dead, so it must be something else about Olaf that rubs me the wrong way. Sadly, the creators of Frozen made him the central character in the animated short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which played before Coco.
Coco was totally worth the wait, however. The storytelling was crystal clear, emotional, and well-structured, with appropriate foreshadowing, lots of call-backs, and some stunning visuals. I couldn’t believe that a couple of adults next to me in the theater found it hard to stay awake; I found it hard not to cry.
Coco is the story of Miguel, the youngest in a long line of Mexican shoemakers. Coco is Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother. Coco and her mother were abandoned by an aspiring music man, so no one in the family is allowed to sing or play an instrument. They’re all fine with that… except Miguel. He wants nothing more than to be allowed to develop his musical talent. Eager to prove himself, he tries to steal the guitar from the tomb of a famous local musician so he can enter a competition being held as part of the town’s Day of the Dead celebrations. The theft doesn’t go as planned, and Miguel finds himself on a quest that teaches him about the dangers of ambition and the value of family.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My beat sheet for Coco
Strings of colorful paper decorations strung up outside. One says “Coco”. As Miguel tells the story of his ancestor, Mama Imelda, we see the events take place in a series of paper cuttings.
Miguel loves his ancient and slightly forgetful great-grandmother Coco. The town is getting ready to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Miguel’s family prepares an altar with photos of family members who have passed away. Miguel dreams of being allowed to practice and play music, and idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz, a wildly successful deceased singer, guitar player, and movie star from his own town. In an attic he has hidden song records, taped recordings of de la Cruz, and a guitar made from scraps. He has befriended a street dog and named him Dante, after the horse de la Cruz rides in one of his movies.
A member of a mariachi band whose shoes Miguel shines encourages him to seize his moment and play in the upcoming competition.
When he shares his plan to compete in the music competition, Miguel’s family scolds him for spending time in the plaza where music is played, even to shine shoes. When he is caught trying to sneak off to the competition with his homemade guitar, his grandmother destroys it. He thinks his family is being unfair, and reacts by saying he doesn’t want anything to do with them or shoes, and runs off to the festival, where unfortunately no one will lend him a guitar to play.
Break into Two
Miguel, having noticed that the photo of Mama Imelda and her husband (whose head has been torn away) features a guitar that looks like that of de la Cruz, breaks into the tomb of de la Cruz and steals the instrument. When he strums it, he becomes some kind of undead spirit. Living, breathing people can no longer see him, but skeletal dead ones can! So can the street dog, Dante. Some of his own dead relatives take him over a bridge of flower petals to the colorful Land of the Dead.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Miguel meets Mama Imelda, who blesses him to send him back to the world as a living boy. Since her blessing carries the condition that he give up music forever, Miguel only stays away for a few seconds: as soon as he picks up the stolen guitar, he is back in the Land of the Dead. No one else in his family will bless him without the same condition. Convinced that de la Cruz is his ancestor, he runs off to seek a blessing from him instead.
Miguel meets Hector, whose ignoble early death had something to do with sausage and who has been unable to visit the world of the living because his family does not display his photograph. He agrees to help Miguel meet de la Cruz after Miguel promises to take his photo back with him. If Hector can’t get someone living to remember him, he will fade away into dust. We see this happen after Hector plays and sings a sad song in answer to a down-and-out friend’s last request. Since Miguel’s family has recruited the police and a huge gryphon to look for him, Hector disguises Miguel. Miguel notices he is starting to look like a skeleton: if he remains until sunrise, he will become one.
Miguel and Hector don’t find de la Cruz where Hector thought he’d be: at rehearsal for the big sunrise show. Miguel displays his musical savvy in helping a choreographer who doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing. Then Miguel enters a competition to get a free ticket to de la Cruz’s party. The crowd loves his performance, which Hector joins in as well, but he doesn’t win. When his family shows up, his friendship with Hector dissolves: Miguel had implied that de la Cruz was his only dead family, when in fact he had lots of dead family members.
Midpoint / Bad Guys Close In
Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz’s party with the help of the winning band and seizes the moment to get de la Cruz’s attention… though he winds up falling in his swimming pool. De la Cruz rescues and adopts him, mostly because Miguel is the current media sensation, but also because Miguel’s devotion is flattering. Something isn’t right! This guy is too full of himself. Miguel doesn’t notice. He’s eager to accept de la Cruz’s blessing and return to life. He scorns the street dog.
All Is Lost
Before the blessing can be given, Miguel discovers that Hector knows de la Cruz. They were partners in the entertainment industry. Hector wrote all de la Cruz’s songs; de la Cruz took credit for them after Hector’s death. Hector’s death, come to think of it, was a bit suspicious. It occurred just after he announced his intention to split with de la Cruz. De la Cruz offered him a toast, which he accepted. Later the same day, he died of some kind of stomach pain. Probably something he ate, right? Hardly. The incident bears a striking similarity to an incident in one of de la Cruz’s movies, in which such a toast contains poison. Miguel’s ancestor is a murderer.
Realizing that his partner knows the truth, he steals his photo. Hector has almost been forgotten: a little longer and he will dissolve into nothingness, and de la Cruz’s secret will be safe. Now that Miguel knows the secret, he can no longer be allowed back into the world of the living to spread news of the murder. De la Cruz has Miguel thrown into some kind of pit to die at sunrise.
Dark Night of the Soul
Miguel’s family hates music. His only musician ancestor is a murderer. He is stuck in a pit where he will turn into a skeleton in a matter of hours. Hector’s there too, and no one remembers him, not even his daughter, Coco for whom he wrote the song, “Remember Me”.
Break into Three
Hang on, Hector’s daughter is Coco? Then that means Hector is Miguel’s ancestor, not de la Cruz! Hooray! Dante arrives on the scene, closely followed by the gryphon and the dead family, who rescue Miguel and Hector from the pit. Miguel promises to accept Mama Imelda’s blessing, even if it means giving up music, as long as he can take Hector’s photo with him. Mama Imelda agrees; she needs Miguel to return with the photo of her that he is carrying. Dante turns rainbow colored and grows wings: either he’s becoming a spirit guide, or he was one all along.
The family attacks backstage at de la Cruz’s amphitheater. In the chaos, Mama Imelda finds herself onstage and starts singing while trying to evade the security guards and steal Hector’s photo from de la Cruz. The family confronts de la Cruz, who not only refuses to help Hector and Miguel but gloats and throws Miguel off the building. Luckily the whole thing was on camera: de la Cruz’s audience now hates him. Dante isn’t strong enough to haul Miguel back up, and Hector’s photo disappears forever in a pool of water, but Miguel manages to get rescued in time for a hasty blessing just before sunrise.
Miguel runs home with de la Cruz’s guitar (which, like all the songs, was actually Hector’s) and locks himself up with Coco to get her to remember Hector using the original, headless photo. His family busts in and scolds him, but he starts playing the song Hector wrote for her [sniff!], and her memories return [sniff!]. She takes the missing piece of the photo out of a drawer [sniff!].
A year has passed; Miguel now has a baby sister. Hector’s head has been restored in the photo of Mama Imelda on the altar, and Coco’s is now on the altar as well. She has reunited with Hector in the Land of the Dead. Letters she left behind prove Hector’s story, and de la Cruz is no longer revered by locals or tourists; Hector is. Miguel sings and plays music for his living family and for the dead family members who have crossed over by means of a path of flower petals to visit the place where their photos sit on the altar.
Paper decorations hanging over the street: one says Coco [sniff!].