Movie Review – Coco
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, and Alanna Ubach
“Remember me,” the legendary Mexican singer croons at the beginning of Coco, the latest full-length animated feature from Pixar Animation Studios. And it’s no coincidence. Remembrance is the heart and soul of Coco. And those to be remembered are not the living, but the dead. For much of the film takes place in the Land of the Dead.
Set in a small Mexican village during celebrations for Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Coco tells of Miguel (voice by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who idolizes the local guitar player-made-good, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) a man he suspects may be his great, great grandfather. Miguel’s love for music and desire to be a guitar player puts him in contact with the guitar of the deceased musical legend. That guitar transports him to The Land of the Dead where he meets his dead relatives and learns the truth about his family.
Few film studios in history can match the stellar reputation of the fabled Pixar brand. With its shrewd combination of state-of-the-art computer animation; wildly original, richly detailed, family-centered stories; a knack for big laughs; and an uncanny ability to bring tears to the eyes of adult males, Pixar has achieved both enormous financial success and a level of quality control that is unprecedented in the hit-and-miss crap shoot of modern Hollywood film production. In just 22 years, 12 of its films have grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide (Coco is fast approaching that number.) And two of their films have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Critical acclaim for the studio’s films is no less impressive. An astonishing 7 of the 19 features it has produced have a rating of 90 or above on the review aggregator site Metacritic with only two of its films not receiving a “favorable” rating.
The studio reached its creative peak last decade with a series of animated masterpieces including Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, movies too good to relegate to the children’s movie bin, quickly becoming a favorite for adults as well as children. But the current decade has seen the studio relying too much on uninspired easy-money sequels like last year’s dreary Finding Dory and this year’s meh-inducing Cars 3, and fewer original stories like 2015’s Inside Out, perhaps their greatest film, and the sadly overlooked The Good Dinosaur.
Coco, from a story by director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), is the studio’s return to original material and an attempt at reestablishing its revered aesthetic. They have happily succeeded. Coco is a moving and resplendent motion picture with stunning animation and an undeniable sense of magic.
Like previous Pixar films, Coco creates its own intricately detailed fantasy world with its own rules and laws. Unkrich’s Land of the Dead is bursting with color, the trademark Pixar visual wit, and surprisingly very little concern with the actual subject of death. If Inside Out could entertain and move to tears both children and adults with a story about the virtues of grief, one might expect Coco to explore some deep message about the sad permanence of death, some meditation on the meaning of it all. But Unkrich isn’t interested. His Land of the Dead is little different from the land of the living. The dead live in houses, go to work, and listen to music just like the living. The expected visual gags involving disembodied skeletons abound. This is not the freshest concept in the Pixar repertoire, but it works because of the wit of its creators and because the overall concept of the film is unique.
And Coco isn’t really about death anyway, but rather, Dia de los Muertos the holiday, its meaning, and its significance in the Mexican culture. Coco honors this culture and its emphasis on the importance of family (a universal Pixar theme). Above all, like the holiday it honors, it’s about the importance of remembering the dead. The Holiday’s traditions (the setting up of altars with photos of the dead and creating trails of marigold petals for example), are lovingly portrayed and eloquently explained. A spare but clever subplot near the end of the story about the death of the dead when they are forgotten on Earth, provides the expected suspense and pathos. In Coco, real death is not in the dying, but in the being forgotten.
Unkrich and his crew extensively researched this film and it shows. Coco feels authentic. From its lovely pastel color palette, to its exquisite character designs, every little detail seems painstakingly created and perfectly realized. It’s a marvel to look at. After twenty-two years of technical advances, the quality of the studio’s computer animation continues to astound.
Coco is also a marvel to listen to. Though it’s not a musical, the film, being the story of musicians, is very much about music. Music is an essential part of the Mexican culture and it informs the entire film. In addition to yet another delightful Pixar score by Michael Giacchino, it’s loaded with memorable ranchero-style pop songs, most memorably “Un Poco Loco” and “Remember Me,” the movie’s featured tune. Not only is it damned catchy, it’s flawlessly integrated with the movie’s theme of remembering the dead. A socko bilingual pop version featuring singer Miguel and Latin pop singer Natalia Lafourcade and heard over the end credits, is the kind of song that repeats in your head for days (weeks?). These songs give the movie a wonderful air of authenticity. They’re levels above the usual icky cartoon songs aimed at prepubescent girls and well worth owning.
Coco ultimately doesn’t quite match the intense emotional impact and astonishing originality of the studio’s very best films. But it nevertheless reaffirms Pixar’s ability to tell exciting and resonant stories. The formula may be more obvious now, but it still works, because the feelings these films evoke are real and universal and because the studios dedication to the craft of storytelling is impeccable. Coco is a glowing celebration of a radiant cultural tradition and a worthy entry in the Pixar pantheon.