Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos
Legendary though Pixar may be, the animation studio’s recent form has been patchy at best – for every Inside Out there’s been a Good Dinosaur. Thankfully their Dia de Los Muertos-themed Coco is a wonderfully creative, if not entirely flawless, return to form.
Coco‘s protagonist is Miguel (an impressive Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who lives in a small Mexican town with his extended family and dreams of becoming a famous musician like his hero, the late Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, his great-great-grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, since which time multiple generations of the family have forbidden the playing of music. An act of rebellion against the family tradition on the Day of the Dead leaves Miguel stranded in the afterlife, where he must team up with ne’er-do-well skeleton Hector (Gael García Bernal) to find a way home.
Never forget how much your family cares for you.
In truth, Coco starts a little slowly, bogged down by a silly premise (the family’s hatred of music borders on the senselessly pathological) and a tidal wave of exposition. Thankfully proceedings pick up mightily once Miguel enters the Land of the Dead, which he reaches in an entrancing sequence set on a bridge of marigolds.
It’s hard to over-emphasise just how visually stunning a film Coco is. Pixar is of course known for the quality of their animation, but Coco is their finest work yet, offering up breathtakingly imaginative, colourful and vibrant vistas and characters to feast the eyes upon.
There’s plenty of visual nods to Mexican traditions and history, some of them obvious (like the painted calaveras of the afterlife’s skeletal inhabitants), some of them more subtle (a scene set in a cenote). There is some undeniable Disneyfication on display – Coco features original songs, a first for a Pixar film, although they’re mostly quite catchy. Nonetheless in general Coco comes across as a highly respectful treatment of Mexican culture. Pixar has taken obvious pains to avoid the overt commodification of the Dia de Los Muertos that has become all too common in the United States and Europe in recent years, and the excellent all-Latino cast rounds out the commitment to proper representation.
I have to sing. It’s not just in me… It is me.
And though work on Coco started long before Donald Trump’s election, it’s tempting to see in Pixar’s latest picture – in its loving depiction of Mexico and its people, in its talk of crossing borders (both legally and illegally) and reuniting families – at least a semi-deliberate indictment of anti-Mexican rhetoric and American treatment of immigrants.
Is that reading too much into things? Perhaps, but for all that Coco is undeniably an all-ages film it covers some big themes – family, remembrance, death and what comes after. There’s still a sense, after all these years, that Pixar tries so much harder than many of their rivals, finding a way to fuse mass-market entertainment with a genuine artistry and profundity.
Coco‘s chief weakness is its predictability – anyone over the age of 12 is likely to see its key story beats a mile off – and though it tugs on the heartstrings, it’s never quite as emotionally effective as Pixar’s most moving work, such as Up or Toy Story 3. Nonetheless, Coco is consistently entertaining fare, building to a genuinely superb third-act. It’s enjoyably ghoulish and macabre throughout, but also sweet and often entrancing – a film about the afterlife that’s remarkably life-affirming.
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