Disney/Pixar’s Coco is a fun, music-centric, animated family adventure about the importance of family that seems well-chosen to be released just in time for the holidays.
Miguel (voiced by thirteen year-old Anthony Gonzalez, his first feature-length film role) lives with his parents and their extended family in a small town in Mexico. When Miguel’s Great-grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), was just a little girl, her musician father left her and her mother to go on tour and never came back. Because of this, the entire family is forbidden to play music. Of course, Miguel, who hero worships a local musician who left town and became a massive music and film star (Ernesto de la Cruz, voiced by Benjamin Bratt in a return to voice work after being heard in Despicable Me 2 and the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films), dreams of being a guitar player. After a confrontation with his Grandmother (Renée Victor, best known as maid Lupita on the Showtime series Weeds) just before the Day of the Dead, Miguel runs away and, one thing leading to another, finds himself in the Land of the Dead. There, he meets his family and discovers his destiny.
For starters, Coco, like most Pixar films, is an absolute wonder to look at. The Land of the Dead, with its lights, flying spirit creatures and walking skeletons, is absolutely beautiful. It looks like a dreamlike version of our world with stores and entertainment options, just tailored toward those no longer living. They even have a bureaucracy whose job it is to make sure that only those whose pictures have been put on display by their living relatives are allowed to visit the living on the Day of the Dead.
Miguel’s tour guide in this world is Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal, star of the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle), who desperately yearns to visit his remaining relatives, but is unable to because no one is displaying his photo. He agrees to assist Miguel in his journey if, when Miguel returns home, he will display Héctor’s picture.
The characters, like the animation, are bright and lively. Miguel is smart and his story is relatable (for adults as well as kids). Coco is sentimental, but not in a way that ever gets sappy. The ending is just the right amount of emotional for this story. The biggest criticism I have about the film is that, though I liked Miguel and Héctor, they did not fully engage me in the way that some previous Pixar characters did (for instance, Mike and Sully from Monsters, Inc. or Wall-E). I guess I liked them, but did not fall in love with them.
Coco (95 minutes not including the end credits) is the nineteenth film by Pixar (it was released on the 22nd anniversary of the release of their first film, Toy Story). They have never been shy when it comes to telling stories from perspectives not often seen on the screen. In addition to toys, they have had protagonists who are fish (Finding Nemo and Finding Dory), cars (the Cars trilogy), a garbage-collecting robot (Wall-E), and the personifications of a child’s emotions (Inside Out). Here, though the star is human, the world is a new one. And I am not just referring to the Land of the Dead.
The Latino culture has never been explored by Pixar (this may very well be a first for Disney, as well). The writers (Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich) and directors (Molina and Lee Unkrich (director of Toy Story 3 and co-director of Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo) tell their story with love and respect for the traditions of these people. Though there are quite a few moments of humor in the film, it is never at the expense of the characters or their beliefs. Coco is a love letter to Mexico, its people and their culture. It was refreshing to see the Day of the Dead portrayed in such a straightforward and honest way in an American film. Kids who see this could actually learn something while also being entertained.
Coco is not Pixar’s best film (after one viewing, I would put it somewhere around tenth), but that is definitely not a knock against it. That is a lot more of a comment on the overall quality of Pixar’s output than it is a criticism of Coco. This is a tremendously enjoyable film with likeable characters, beautiful animation and a heartwarming message. The overall narrative never really picked up enough steam down the stretch to completely wow me, so it is not great Pixar. But, make no mistake, this is the best animated film of the year.
Note: Like all Disney and Pixar animated films, Coco is preceded by a short film. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (21 minutes long), a holiday themed short featuring characters from Disney’s Frozen. It is okay and will probably be enjoyed by those who liked Frozen more than I did. It contains several decent songs and a few laughs but, overall, felt a little too long.
4 out of 5
Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel
Gael García Bernal as Héctor
Benjamin Bratt as Ernesto de la Cruz
Alanna Ubach as Mamá Imelda
Renée Victor as Abuelita
Alfonso Arau as Papá Julio
Ana Ofelia Murguia as Mamá Coco
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich