Starring (Voices): Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich
Running Time: 105 mins
Synopsis: Young Miguel (Gonzalez) yearns to play music like his hero Ernesto De La Cruz (Bratt), but all music is forbidden by his family after a generations old tragedy that befell his ancestors. Desperate to prove his talent Miguel accidentally finds himself in the colourful Land of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Hector (Bernal) the two embark on a crazy adventure to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history.
After the solid if forgettable Cars 3 last year, Pixar have returned to the well of originality that routinely provides their best output with the remarkably fun and beautiful Coco. Despite their usual affinity for captivating world building, however, Coco is a whole new challenge for the imaginative creatives at Pixar HQ, a universe based around an embedded and unfamiliar (well to most of the world) culture. That of Mexico and its fabled Dias De Las Muertos festival aka the Day of the Dead. Not to be deterred by the potential to portray things at half mast, director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and his team have committed fully into this setting, confident in their audience to come along for the ride regardless of contextual knowledge. Helpfully there is a certain amount of exposition, front-loaded to the first 20 mins or so and whilst on the verge of overload at times it is necessary to firm up the basics of this unique universe.
An opening montage, beautifully conveyed in simple cut out paper trails, details the history of our hero Miguel’s family. Once a family of deep musical traditions, before his great great grandfather left his young wife and child to pursue his career, leaving the family bereft and determined to never let music into the family again. It’s perhaps a slightly dramatic reaction but one that provides great dramatic thrust to Miguel’s journey. For Miguel is a fantastical dreamer, one with a desire to play great music, and one that is frustratingly held back by his family’s focus on making shoes. This aspect gives some insightful thoughts into the nature of creativity and personal aspirations rubbing up against those strong allegiances to the warm affectionate family that raised you. Unkrich frames all this within the larger context of the yearly Day of the Dead festival. One night where every family places pictures of their deceased loved ones above offerings designed to allow their distant souls to come over for one night only. This is only the start of a tale that encompasses Miguel’s musical hero, Ernesto De La Cruz, and a journey into the Land of the Dead itself.
It is a lot to take in, and though it is somewhat simplified (after all this is still a family film at heart) it does feel close to exhausting in the early stretch. However the exuberance of the character work, the delightful vocal performances and the artistic style on display keep things from feeling a slog. Upon his entrance to the Underworld the film really kicks into gear. Seeking out his deceased familia, Miguel falls in with a scheming trickster named Hector. Brazenly charismatic and effortlessly charming, despite his bedraggled appearance and well lack of skin (after all this is the Land of the Dead). Voiced by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, Hector is a lovable fast talking rogue that has become a stock in trade for Disney over the years, but one given deep pangs of melancholy by a late film revelation which I will not spoil here. Never one to do things by halves Pixar fully commit to this cultural representation by having the entire voice cast hail from a Mexican background (apart from John Ratzenberger’s ‘lucky charm’ cameo of course), and it gives an extra level of authenticity to proceedings. It certainly helps that said cast give energetic, loquacious performances. Key praise going to newcomer Anthony Gonzalez playing the young Miguel with an effervescent spirit and a touching song voice.
Visually Coco goes to places only mad men could dream of, in a good way, the grounded earthy tones of the living segments juxtaposed nicely with the jaw-dropping scale of the Dead world. Rich with colour, light and sound the Land of the Dead is a true feast for the eyes. Background details sure to be ever more noticeable on further re-watches. As to be expected from Pixar there is an internal logic to the structure of this place that whilst never explicitly mentioned, is very easy to see. Character work is also varied, eccentric and bursting with imagination. Somehow managing to make what is essentially thousands of skeletons each feel individualistic, to the point where just looking at them you get a distinct sense of who they used to be in their past life. Coco also features numerous creatures with their own unique looks, but the best work is saved for Miguel’s loyal dog companion Dante. A Mexican hairless doggy, his limped uncontrollable tongue and manic nature hugely endearing. All this would be for nought if the emotional investment is missing, which thankfully is there and then some. Unkrich’s story not only encapsulating the frustrations and joys of family, the challenges of creative expression and the pitfalls of hero worship, but also a ferociously powerful treatise on the nature of memory.
Halfway through Coco, the film introduces the concept that to be forgotten in the living world results in complete erasure in the Dead world. Similar to the way childhood memory was conveyed in Pixar’s masterpiece Inside Out, it is equally as traumatic here, albeit Unkrich eases in a little more of a optimistic side. The best Pixar films always find a way of breaking down complex nuanced themes into heartfelt simplicity, and Coco is no different. How often do we find ourselves forgetting those we have lost, time and our own lives contributing to this lapse of recollection. Coco positing that this is not a crime, that whilst some choose to keep those passed alive with vivid displays (such as the Dias De Las Muertos) others can remember them in their words, their actions or in their music. Faces may be forgotten but the essence of love will forever remain, a moment captured at the end of this film with remarkable clarity and tear-inducing soul. It is starting to become a cliche now that every Pixar film should make me cry.
Visually it may be wondrous but aurally Coco also soars, which you’d hope seeing as music drives the central conceit. Songs hail from Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez, capturing the same infectious rhythm’s that that mega-sized hit did, ably supported by composer extraordinaire Michael Giacchino’s bouncy score. Coco moves with a lust for life and a cultural sensitivity that disarms, entertains and enraptures. The Land of the Dead may be fantastical and beyond the fringes of believability, but the essence of the values in which its people trust in are enlightening. Its greatest success is in opening up this way of life to those not versed in its existence, not some tourist-driven notion of Mexico but one that is tangibly real. Pixar may have taken us to worlds beyond our imagination, or in fact possibility but Coco reminds us that there are still wondrous, exciting and interesting worlds right at our very feet.
Verdict: Coco uses Pixar’s keen characterisation, visual wonder, tonal dexterity and imaginative flair to impressive ends. An exploration of a distinctive culture that conjures laughs, heart and tears. Another Pixar triumph.