REVIEW – ‘Coco’

In many ways, you have to feel deep empathy for any film being released under the banner of Disney Pixar. The company has set the bar so incredibly high, with the most ridiculous back-catalogue of genuine masterpieces of animated cinema. Every now and then, they deliver a film that somehow raises the bar a touch higher (Inside Out), but most (Cars 3, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory) can’t seem to reach the lofty heights of their predecessors. It hasn’t been a great year for the animation genre, but, thankfully, Disney Pixar’s latest, Coco, is here to save the day, with their best and most original film in two years, with an emotional punch that is typically Pixar, in the very best way.

Taking inspiration from Mexico’s Dia de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) celebration, the one day of the year when the spirits of the deceased can return to visit their living family members, Coco is the charming tale of the Rivera family. Twelve-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) lives with his extended family in the small Mexican town of Santa Cecilia. A sweet-natured boy, Miguel loves nothing more than playing guitar. There’s just one small problem – music is explicitly banned in his household. When Miguel’s great-great grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), was young, her musician husband cruelly abandoned her and their young daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), to selfishly chase his dreams of being a famous singer. Ever since, music has been forbidden for any member of Mama Imelda’s family.

But Miguel can’t deny his passion for music, and his deep love for his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a hugely popular Mexican singer from the 1920s who tragically was killed in a stage accident, at the peak of his career. Miguel also suspects he may share a connection with de la Cruz that runs deeper than just music. When his plans to perform at a local talent show are dashed by his grandmother, Abuelita (Renée Victor), destroying his home-made guitar, Miguel makes a rash decision to “borrow” de la Cruz’s infamous white guitar, adorned above his elaborate shrine/tomb. But his plan backfires when the act causes Miguel and his dog Dante to be transported to the Land of the Dead, where he meets several of his ancestors, including Mama Imelda.

Naturally, Miguel does not belong in this colourful land of skeletons, alebrijes (Mexican spirit animals), and departed souls. When Miguel’s human body begins to slowly transform into a skeleton, Mama Imelda realises he must return to the Land of the Living before dawn, or else remain stuck forever. But our hero has other ideas, and sees this as his one and only chance to meet his beloved idol de la Cruz, who is holding his annual Dia de Muertos party at his lavish home. To gain access to this exclusive event, Miguel turns to a friendly and charming con-artist, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), to help with his quest. As we soon learn, Hector has his own reasons for helping Miguel, and the two will head down a path filled with delightful twists, turns, and, of course, plenty of music.

For all the deep history of Disney combining animation and music, Pixar has remained fairly distant from crafting a true animated musical. Music has always played a key part in their stories, but often with one key song (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”) and a glorious score (the iconic Up score is still the benchmark), rather than big musical numbers. While not a full-blown Frozen-esque musical, Coco is Pixar’s first real endeavour into this territory. Written by Germaine Franco, Adrian Molina, Robert Lopez, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (the latter two of Oscar-winning Frozen fame), the songs are all enjoyable, if not slightly forgettable, and the elaborate performances are wonderfully entertaining. And, as one musically minded friend tells me, incredibly accurate, with Miguel’s fingers animated to portray the exact hand and finger positions on his guitar for each note he’s playing. But, in true Pixar style, there is one stand-out number, “Remember Me,” that is a true triumph, and likely the future Oscar-winner for Best Original Song. From the song’s title, you can probably guess it’s an emotional number, and one likely to produce the kind of sobs only a Pixar can elicit.

As with most Pixar films, Coco is a visual masterpiece, with vibrant character and background designs, and the most dazzling of colour palettes, filled with lashings of fluorescent oranges, greens, and blues. Showing their deep respect and impressive research into Mexican culture and beliefs, the film conveys the visuals associated with Dia de Muertos with such accuracy and intricacy, particularly in their gorgeous design work on the alebrijes and a wonderfully bizarre avant-garde performance by none other than Frida Kahlo. The world they have crafted in the Land of the Dead is genuinely stunning, with its epic city layout all connected by a massive bridge, constructed out of thousands of shimmering orange marigold petals – an item which becomes key to the film’s plot. It’s the kind of visual animated cinema you wish you could pause, just to take it all in. For all their impressive work in the past, this may just be Pixar’s most breathtaking visual effort to date.

But, in the best of the animation genre, visuals are nothing without a strong narrative and a great voice cast, and, thankfully, Coco delivers strongly on both counts. While not entirely original, after 2014’s The Book of Life got in first with its Dia de Muertos tale, the plot is engaging and entertaining, filled with an abundance of genuine wit and charming humour. As with their best films, the true success of Coco lies with its heart, and the film is beautifully tender and downright moving, with a deep message about the importance of family and respecting your elders. And if your eyes are not filled with tears during its conclusion, you must not be human. On a personal note, if, like me, as a young child, you shared a special relationship with your grandmother, the film will hit you like a tonne of bricks.

Director Lee Unkrich, the man behind Toy Story 3 and Finding Nemo, fills his creation with such a glorious cast of characters, backed by an incredible ensemble voice cast of Hispanic actors. Bernal is the highlight, as the carefree and energetic Hector, and Bratt brings such smarmy charisma to Ernesto de la Cruz. Gonzalez is terrific as Miguel, and he quickly becomes one of Pixar’s most delightful heroes. But the real star here is Murguía as Mama Coco, a character so beautifully animated and wonderfully voiced, she will grab your heart like no other. As the fading great-grandmother, her presence is deeply touching, and she really is the film’s true soul. Oh, Mama Coco. My eyes tear up just remembering you.

With something for both young and old, Coco is the best of “children’s cinema” because it works on different levels. The youngest of audience members will be enchanted by its colourful displays and comedic moments. But, for those slightly older, the film is an emotional lesson on respecting the past, embracing the present, and seeing death as a part of life not to be feared. It’s remarkable to see an animated film conveying such complex and important notions of life. But, it is Pixar, and it’s entirely what we’ve come to expect from their greatest works.

After a swarm of money-grabbing sequels (and, sadly, that’s all they’ve got on the horizon), it’s decidedly wonderful to see Pixar returning to their core roots of delivering refreshing and original pieces of cinema. It’s what their known for, and what they do best. No one delivers enduring animated masterpieces like Pixar, and it’s pleasing to see they can still craft the kind of cinema they’ve helped define for the last two decades. There are some minor flaws with Coco, but none so fatal as to undermine its stellar accomplishments. This is easily the best animated film of 2017, and one you must take your children to this holiday season.

While Coco may fall slightly short of Pixar’s masterful heights (WALL·E, Inside Out, Up), it soars well above what they’ve produced lately, and takes its place among their very best.