Coco is the latest offering from Pixar, the studio once known for never putting out a bad film, but now has to settle for the studio with far more hits than misses (thanks, Cars 2!). Written by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina and co-directed by Unkrich and Molina, Coco is centred around the Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead.
It’s the first time Pixar has attempted to take on a cultural story: most of the films have been in a wacky version of America (or one time, France), with the sole exception being a fairy tale version of medieval Scotland. But Coco is about a real holiday, with real mythology around it. Pixar is now playing in a pre-established sandbox, so to speak, and one that could easily turn to quicksand: the last thing you want to do is disrespect the culture and the people you’re trying to celebrate.
Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.
Miguel is a 12-year-old boy in Mexico who has to keep his love of music a secret. Legend goes that generations ago, his great-great-grandfather was a famous musician who abandoned his wife and daughter. As a result, the family blamed and banned music from the home. Miguel has a gift and a passion for music, inspired by the long-dead musician Ernesto de la Cruz who was the pride and joy of Mexico.
There’s a talent show and music festival happening in the town square on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and Miguel runs away from his family to join. Miguel believes his ancestor is Ernesto de la Cruz after finding an old family photo with his famous guitar and tries to steal the guitar from his tomb to play in the show. This thievery from the dead on the Day of the Dead is the mystical trickery that sends Miguel into the Land of the Dead. He meets Hector, a down on his luck skeleton with no family, and the two work together to get Miguel to de la Cruz, and then Hector to the land of the living.
Coco assumes the audience has no working knowledge of Day of the Dead, so Miguel provides the necessary backstory: it’s the one day a year the living can communicate with the dead, but it’s not spooky like Halloween. The holiday is a chance for family to be reunited across the lines of the living and the dead, with the living putting out pictures and offerings for their family members to cross over.
Miguel, voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, is a delightful protagonist. He’s rendered in the most adorable fashion (Pixar knows how to get you), and Gonzalez’s voice work is impeccable. He’s excited, cheerful and joyous, but when the stakes change he’s able to convey real fear and sadness.
Hector, however, is the standout character of the film. Voiced by Gael García Bernal, Hector hasn’t been able to cross over into the land of the living as his family never put his photo up. He’s become a trickster in the afterlife, someone who has got by through sneaking around, smooth-talking and befriending those in low places. He’s got an air of urgency and tragedy about him, particularly as he shows Miguel what his fate will be if no one remembers him — he’ll disappear from the Land of the Dead, and cease to exist entirely.
Speaking of remembering, “Remember Me” is the big song of Coco, an Ernesto de la Cruz hit that is also sung by Miguel and Hector at different points in the film. It’s rather simplistic for a central song (which makes sense once you realise it was originally a lullaby), but it’s the only one that has any kind of impact. For a movie about the importance of music, the songs in Coco are rather weak.
Coco‘s strong point is definitely the visuals. It’s some of the most beautiful animation Pixar has put out, colourful and vibrant and detailed. The skeletons in the Land of the Dead are each unique, and friendly-looking enough not to scare any kids in the audience. The shot of Miguel first looking up at the Land of the Dead is a standout moment in the film, and one of the better-looking shots in any film this year.
Coco also manages to succeed in a way half of the Marvel universe has failed: a real villain. For the first two-thirds of the film, Miguel and Hector are trying to make their way to de la Cruz and dodge Miguel’s family, who want to send him back to the Land of the Living with no blessing to be a musician. Miguel’s family, led by matriarch Imelda (the one who was scorned by a musician husband), stand-in as the villains by looking to end the fun. The end flips everything and reveals the real villain and the real heroes — something most adults would have picked up on early on, but was probably a big shock for the younger audience.
At the end of the day, Coco is a film about the importance of family. Miguel’s journey was about learning to love and respect his family, even when he disagrees with him, and his family too had to come to forgive and accept one another.
Pixar had had an impossible task with Coco and they pulled it off: it’s respectful and informative of Mexican culture, it’s fun engaging for adults and kids, and it’s simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking in that way only Pixar can achieve. It may not top the heights of Toy Story, but it’s certainly one of the best family films in years.