Coco | Lee Unkrich | November 22, 2017
Coco is the latest from the trustworthy Pixar Animation Studios and their strongest work since 2015’s Inside Out. It’s no surprise, as director Lee Unkrich was behind Toy Story 3 – and shared co-director credits on Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.
Coco focuses on a bright-eyed young budding musician named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). He lives in the small fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, hoping to follow the footsteps of his hero and local icon Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). All he wants is to follow his dream of making music, but there’s only one problem: his family has banned any and all music. The harsh rule has been a part of the family for generations after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his family to pursue his musical dreams, never to return. This devastated his great-great-grandmother so much that she had totally banned music in her family and instead embarked on a career as a cobbler, which she turned into a family business that was passed down from one generation to the next. This sense of hurt is primarily felt by Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), who even at her extreme age still calls out for her beloved father to come back.
Miguel’s pursuit of music and his family’s beliefs come to a head during the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where he finds a link between his great-great-grandfather possibly being Ernesto de la Cruz, which motivates him to try out for the village’s annual talent contest, except that his grandmother (Renée Victor) smashes his guitar, enraged that he put music ahead of what is supposed to be a day spent celebrating with his family. Heartbroken and motivated to show them all that he’s meant for a life of music, he attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar in a mausoleum, only to find that it has magically transported him (and the local neighborhood dog Dante) to the Land of the Dead. It’s there where spirits of our loved ones remain free to celebrate their lives and cross back to the land of the living during this special day, as long as their loved ones haven’t forgotten their memory in the form of putting a photo of them during the celebration.
It’s in this magical land where he meets all his relatives and an oddball character named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is close to becoming forgotten and will soon fade away. Hector agrees to help him find Ernesto de la Cruz if Miguel agrees to get Hector’s photo to the land of the living. Time is of the essence and our young hero’s journey in the Land of the Dead is on the clock, as he only has until sunrise to get it all done, or else he’s stuck there for good. The plot is easy to follow and digestible for younger viewers, but the sense of urgency is felt all the same. The visuals created by cinematographers Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg that depict the Land of the Dead are absolutely stunning on every level, a visual treat with bright colors illuminating the land. It results in some of Pixar’s most striking visuals to date – which is saying something.
The story beats are a bit safe and predictable, as any viewers who are paying close enough attention will be able to pick up on the many clues that writers Adrian Molina (who co-directed this with Unkrich) and Matthew Aldrich leave behind. I’ll admit that I did easily predict the major plot twists of it once the pieces came into play, but even so, they still hit me like a ton of bricks when the reveal occurred because it’s handled so delicately and with heartfelt, genuine emotion that is undeniable. Similarly to the 2015 great Pixar effort Inside Out, there are many moments here that will unleash the waterworks. During it’s crushing final moments, I heard plenty of open weeping and could see audience members close to me wiping away the tears, myself included.
It’s hard not to see the connective thread between it and The Book Of Life, another animated film that covers a similar topic. But then again Coco began production two years before it’s release and does plenty to stand out from The Book Of Life – which also was very solid in its own right. But even with that connection and somewhat predictable plot, I would be lying if I didn’t become completely undone by its beautiful ending which totally hit all the right notes and left me an emotional wreck. Its themes about family and love are universal – and like so many great Pixar films before it, they find a way to hammer it home in a way that never feels preachy, but rather wholesome and true. It’s the rare film that gets better as it goes along, building towards a climax that it hits way out of the park.
Points to Pixar and the creative team behind the film for bringing in an authentic voice cast and going out and consulting Mexican families and talent to make this film as real and authentic as possible and to avoid cultural appropriation. I can’t personally speak from the Mexican perspective of course, but from the way Pixar approached the film, it seems like they did their job and tried to make it as real as possible. From the lovely score from the great Michael Giacchino to the memorable original songs from Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Germaine Franco, Adrian Molina, and Robert Lopez (the aptly-titled “Remember Me” is a particular highlight and has a real shot to pick up Best Original Song come Oscar night) and the amazing visuals, Coco hits all the right notes and had me leaving the theater knowing that I just witnessed yet another winner from the studio that will be remembered for a long time.