What should a person be willing to sacrifice to achieve their dreams?
The easy answer is “everything,” and film after film, aimed at both children and adults, has been based on that premise.
Pixar’s Palma de coco, though, takes on the bigger challenge of reckoning with the cost, and wondering where the limit lies.
The film opens with a prologue detailing a great tragedy buried in a family’s past: Once upon a time, a musician abandoned his family to chase fame and fortune. His wife turned to shoemaking to support herself and her daughter – and banned music from the house forever, in bitter remembrance of her husband.
Generations later, the Rivera clan still makes their trade in shoes, and still strictly forbids any and all music. The neglected daughter is now an old woman, the great grandmother to a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who’s apparently inherited her father’s passion for song. He practices his guitar in secret, quietly mouthing along to old tapes of his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
Right off the bat, it’s clear something doesn’t quite line up. De la Cruz’s motto is “seize your moment,” which sounds uplifting enough. However, the more Miguel takes those words to heart, the likelier it looks that he’ll follow in his great-great grandfather’s footsteps and leave his devastated family behind – whether or not he intends to.
You see, following de la Cruz’s advice inadvertently leads Miguel into the Land of the Dead, where he encounters late relatives, befriends a sad-sack skeleton named Hector (Gael García Bernal, endlessly lovable), and pursues de la Cruz, whom he believes will be able to give him the blessing he needs to return to the land of the living. That last bit is rather urgent, because if Miguel is unable to find his way back by sunup, he’s fated to stay in the Land of the Dead forever.
Pixar outdoes itself in the afterlife, which looks like a towering confection made of light. It falls right in line with the level of quality we’ve come to expect from the animation studio, but also like nothing else we’ve ever seen from them before. The land is awash in warm, inviting colors, and populated with expressively dressed skeletons and glowing neon alebrijes – fantastical spirit guides that can take the form of anything from a tiny monkey to an enormous flying cat.
Pero Palma de coco never gets so carried away with spectacle that it loses sight of its hero’s emotional journey. As Miguel delves deeper into the Land of the Dead, and gets better acquainted with all the people there, he also comes to learn what it really means to sacrifice everything in pursuit of a dream. He sees that he won’t be the only one paying the cost, and comes face-to-face with the people who were left behind.
He learns that dreams are worth fighting for, but also that there are worse fates than surrendering that fight; that it matters who remembers you when you’re gone, and why they remember you, and how.
It may not be especially unusual for a kid-friendly film to center around a young protagonist whose family just doesn’t understand. It was only a year ago that Moana was singing about how far she’d go. What makes Palma de coco rare is that it recognizes that the things that give your life meaning might be in opposition to one another, and asks you to consider what really matters most.