The celebration of a lifetime
I can see why Disney-Pixar’s 19th full-length animated feature, Coco, changed its name, the flick originally titled Día de los Muertos (the namesake for the Mexican Day of the Dead), House of Mouse execs wanting to trademark the phrase for merchandising/ legal reasons — a scheme that was met with extreme criticism from the Mexican-American community. Minor missteps aside, Coco celebrates the century-old culture and traditions of the modest Mexican people, the narrative a universal story about loss and forgiveness, the importance of family and honoring customs, the film taking place in two stunningly-realized parallel worlds: the Land of the Living, Mexico City, and the fabled Land of the Dead.
Some six years in the making — and Pixar’s first-ever musical — Coco opens with the iconic Disney tune played in mariachi style, this intro instantly setting the tone; if you look closely, you can see the film’s center-piece cemetery faintly in the background, just behind the classic Sleeping Beauty Castle. From there, viewers are transported to the fictional, music-loving Mexican village of Santa Cecilia (cleverly named after Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians), where we meet 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring muso who secretly dreams of becoming an accomplished performer, just like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous singer-songwriter-actor in the history of Mexico.
While undoubtedly talented, Miguel is very much self-taught, the young’un having to practise and fine-tune his skills in secret, due to a strict, long-running ban on music, which has been passed down from generation to generation and enforced with an iron-fist by Miguel’s grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor), the Rivera clan (despite their musical roots) prohibiting music of any kind — this history explained (in a prologue) via some inventive papel picado-style banners. Torn between his passion for song and his love for his family — who have since turned to shoemaking, Miguel’s mamá, Luisa (Sofía Espinosa), and papá, Enrique (Jaime Camil), wanting their son to follow in their footsteps — and driven by his idol’s catchphrase, ‘Seize your moment,’ Miguel tries to enter a talent show during the Día de Muertos festival (the annual Mexican celebration to honor the dead), much to the dismay of grandma Abuelita, who smashes his only guitar when she learns of his intentions.
When his dreams are shattered (quite literally), Miguel, emboldened by an old photograph revealing some hidden family heritage, decides to steal de la Cruz’s prized guitar, which is displayed at a sanctum in the center of the local graveyard, to use in the competition, our hero desperate to prove to his kin that making music can be both honorable and beautiful. But, when Miguel strums the sacred stringed instrument, he is rendered invisible to the townsfolk, this magical transformation allowing him to see and interact with ghostly skeletal visitors (some of whom are long-deceased ancestors) from the spirit world.
Problem is, when Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Imelda (Alanna Ubach) — the matriarch of the Rivera family — refuses to send him back to the corporeal world, her blessing dependent on a condition that Miguel can not adhere to — and that is, that he give up music forever — the down-on-his-luck tyke is forced to seek the aid of his ousted great-great-grandfather, who resides somewhere in the Land of the Dead, seeing as all of his other departed relatives are bound by Imelda’s approval. Now, enlisting a dejected, streetwise trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) to help him navigate the labyrinthine streets, Miguel has just one night to locate the late Rivera patriarch, who is perhaps the only ‘person’ willing to break Miguel’s curse and send him back home, no strings attached.
Directed by Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 (2010) — who’s reportedly been working on the project since 2011 — and co-directed by Pixar story artist Adrian Molina, Coco excels when it comes to sheer visual flair, the film, without a doubt, the studio’s most striking entry to date — there’s a wealth of imagination in each and every frame. For starters, the contrasting realms are wonderfully crafted and richly designed, both environments (while vastly different) artfully infusing the fiery marigold into their layout, the flower typically associated with the Day of the Dead festa; a flaring marigold-petaled bridge, which connects the corresponding worlds, stands as a glowing highlight.
While the initial portion of Coco takes place in the humble, dust-covered streets of a conventional Hispanic village — these scenes showcasing native Mexican locales (think bustling plazas and sandy workshops) — it’s the journey to the fantastical Land of the Dead that truly awes, the vibrant, vertically-sprawling necropolis almost worth the price of admission, this mystical, sugar-colored terrain housing a handful of expressive, deep-eyed skeleton citizens and candy-coated spirit animals, the city a bright and bustling, luminescent delight. What also impresses are the prominently-featured altar-like ofrendas, which are central components in the Land of the Living — these adorned with tattered portraits, burning candles and an array of foods and offerings — the distinctly-Mexican shrines adding genuine authenticity to the mid-Fall southern North American landscape, moviemakers presenting the iconic three-day carnival like you’ve never seen it before — the flick a little more culturally conscious than the Guillermo del Toro-produced animated yarn, Book of Life (2014).
Where Coco falters, however, is in its storyline, the script, written by co-director Molina and relative newcomer Matthew Aldrich, a little predictable and clichéd, even with its narrative twists and turns — Coco based on a story by novice screenwriters Molina and Aldrich, along with director Unkrich and story supervisor Jason Katz. Commemorating the cycle of nature, while spotlighting the power of memory and the bonds of family, Coco is certainly compelling and heartfelt, the track ‘Remember Me,’ which is heard several times throughout, sure to tickle the tear ducts. With that said, overall proceedings can be a smidgen too scary for preschoolers, the movie peppered with morbid jokes and subtle dark humor; although, it is refreshing to see a family film that speaks to kiddies about the joys and pains of life (and so openly, too), Coco depicting death as a sort of ‘cheery’ crossing-over.
Still, when compared to some of Pixar’s former entertainers, Coco lacks that inimitable X factor that made the studio so bold and unique in the past — look, with company spearhead John Lasseter (love him or hate him) back in the game (the Pixar pioneer having moved to Walt Disney Animation in the mid-2000s to revitalize the flailing studio), Coco definitely feels a little fresher, and more inspired, than some of Pixar’s latest releases.
Fittingly, Coco features an all-Latino voice cast, with the charismatic Benjamin Bratt, Despicable Me 2 (2013), perhaps the only recognizable personality, the 53-year-old actor voicing the late-and-great stage-and-screen star Ernesto de la Cruz, aka, Mexico’s answer to Elvis, who, just like The King, suffered an untimely death, de la Cruz still a winsome superstar in the afterlife, though. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez fares well as Miguel, the second youngest protagonist in a Pixar film, whereas Gael García Bernal, from Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle (2014), is affable as the scrappy Héctor, a bag-of-bones desperate to cross over to the Land of the Living. On a side note, the goofy Xolo stray, Dante — the national dog of Mexico — provides oodles of laughs, while the movie’s composer, Michael Giacchino (whose earnest and joyous Mexican-inspired score ranges from cumbia to mariachi) appears in a ‘caricature’ cameo as an orchestra conductor.
The best Pixar release since 2015’s Inside Out, Coco gives audiences enough to go loco about, the film charming, poignant and timely, and a nice antidote to Donald Trump’s egregious US-Mexico border wall. Ultimately, if there’s one thing to take away from Unkrich’s sophomore picture, it’s its views on death, a grim and unescapable truth that we (as people) must all one day face, the flick giving children a colorful, lively and hopeful perspective on a morbid reality.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner