Coco is a beautifully designed and emotionally resonant Pixar film that is a step in the right direction for diversity at the studio
Death, murder, loss, and grief are just some of the topics and themes that Pixar’s 19th feature Coco tackles, which is surprising considering it’s a kids movie featuring talking skeletons and an incompetent dog. However, like all of Pixar’s best, Coco is a lively tale that tackles complex themes in a way that kids can understand and perhaps even learn from. And though it may not be the studio’s most inventive film, the emotional depths that it reaches are great. I was even shedding tears by the final number. Plus, whether it’s a direct response to our political climate or the studio’s less than diverse slate of characters thus far, Coco is a celebration of culture, Mexican and otherwise.
Like Moana did last year with Polynesian culture, Coco mines much of its mythology from Mexican culture and specifically El Dia De Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. The fictional Mexican town of Santa Cecilia is in deep preparation for the day with food offerings, decorations, and orange petals adorning the graves of loved ones. The town even has a talent show to commemorate the day, something that 12-year-old aspiring musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is hoping to participate in. However, his family, specifically his grandmother Elena (Renée Victor), shuns music from the household since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue his dream of being a musician as a breezy intro explains at the beginning.
But Miguel is in love with music and worships the Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a music megastar who came from Miguel’s hometown. And though Ernesto has since died, Miguel continues to listen to his music and carefully watches his movies to learn how to play the guitar. Eventually, an incident leads Miguel to attempt and steal Ernesto’s guitar that his kept in his mausoleum. However, when he strums the guitar he is transported to the Land of the Dead. There, he meets his relatives that have passed on including Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) — she’s the mother of the titular Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) who is Miguel’s dementia-suffering great-grandmother.
The Land of the Dead is among the most visually stunning worlds created for a Pixar film. Connected to the Land of the Living by a bridge made of orange flower petals, the other plane is a built-up world of warm golds and bronze and festive colors of the Day of the Dead. An entire world is built for the dead and it’s beautifully thought out and realized by the animators and director Lee Unkrich. Part of the delight of this movie is discovering more and more of the world as Miguel ventures deeper into a plot that becomes bigger than he could ever imagine. Along the way, he meets Hector (Gabriel García Bernal), a trickster in the Land of the Dead who’s looking for any way to cross over to the Land of the Living. Eventually, he becomes Miguel’s guide through his journey to find Ernesto, who is adored in death as he was in life.
The plotting of the film isn’t as inspired as the most recent Pixar films and most of the twists are predictable. However, most importantly, the emotions are there. The emotional climax of the film hits hard and is earned. That’s partially thanks to the incredible animation of Coco and the vocal performance by Gonzalez, who is a standout throughout the movie. The film builds on each of its themes — culture, dreams, loss — and comes to terms with all of them in what is one of the most emotional scenes in a Pixar film the ends the movie on the highest note possible.
Crafted impeccably, one of the standout elements is the score by Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and the central song “Remember Me” by Oscar-winners Robert and Kristen Lopez, who are surely going to be back in contention for this film. In the end, Coco is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not the best the studio has put out, but it’s certainly the most emotionally wrought. It’s almost hard to believe this is a movie for children. But, as usual, they strike a perfect balance between making a movie that the kids will enjoy and the adults will appreciate. Coco is a delight that will not easily be forgotten.