Let’s face it, Pixar has fallen into the pit of sequel shame over the past few years focusing more on building upon past successes rather than offering the great original works that made it an animation giant in the first place. When it does offer something new however, the studio shines its brightest and not sense “Inside Out” has it shined as bright as it does with “Coco”. Colorful, well written, and surprisingly deep in its narrative about family, legacy and the power of music “Coco” is as touching as it is entertaining and is a true work of art from a studio in desperate need of recaptured magic. Let me dive into just how great the film is. Here’s my review of “Coco”.
“Coco” takes place in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia during the celebration of Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. A young boy named Miguel, played by young up-and-comer Anthony Gonzalez, has grown up in a family that has banned music from their lives for generations after the family’s patriarch abandoned his wife and child named Coco, thus the name of the film, to follow a career on the stage. With music in his blood Miguel decides to take part in a local talent show only for his family to berate him leading to his grandmother smashing Miguel’s guitar. After realizing his family patriarch may have been the famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz, played by Benjamin Bratt, Miguel steals the famed musician’s guitar inadvertently cursing himself to enter the afterlife where he meets his relatives who continue to refuse his dream of playing music. Hoping to gain blessing to return to the living from a musician relative, Miguel sets out to find de la Cruz and along the way learns valuable lessons about family while trying to convince his ancestors of today and yesterday that one mans mistakes shouldn’t destroy a young man’s dreams and that the profound effects of music shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The only way I can describe “Coco” properly is it’s a magical, mesmerizing ride that captures the true meaning of family to its fullest. This is the kind of film we all missed from Pixar. It oozes the studio’s trademark gift for colorful animation, well thought out and mesmerizing storytelling, and attention to every details that helps make it one of Pixar’s, and Disney’s for that matter, most memorable offerings in recent years. One of the many things I loved about “Coco” was that it brought forward some extremely touchy themes including death and the fear of being forgotten and somehow presented them in a nicely wrapped package that makes it easy for children to understand but also relatable for adults by presenting some pretty powerful situations few works of this kind tend to touch on. It earns its PG rating and while it may not be as universally family friendly as other animated offerings it takes some chances and offers a very welcome approach to storytelling that makes it’s central themes significant and tasteful while holding little back in it’s presentation of death and loss.
As with many Pixar films the cast is not necessarily filled with universally known names, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked. The cast is made up, appropriately so, of mostly ethnic actors and actresses to fit the movie’s setting in a Mexican village. The accents sound and feel natural and adding these authentic figures to the mix makes the film feel more grounded and real in its approach to a traditional Mexican holiday and belief in terms of the dead. Young Anthony Gonzalez leads the cast and gives us a strong central figure to hold on to. Miguel shows all the signs of a typical rebellious 12-year-old and while the family’s hatred of music may seem farfetched and overplayed Miguel’s struggle to explore his passion and escape the family business feels less like the cliché that it really is and more like the true awakening it should be. Even though he only plays the voice, Gonzalez manages to bring clear emotion and signs of frustration to Miguel making him a believable young protagonist experiencing a growing point in his life who we all route for, but we also hope for him to learn a lesson we all realize has to be learned the hard way.
The other major male role in the film is Gael García Bernal as Hector, a charming trickster of a man who is among the dead and becomes Miguel’s ally in the afterlife with hopes that Miguel will put his picture up to allow him entry into the real world on the Day of the Dead to see his daughter one last time. Hector in an interesting character who we first meet trying to sneak into the land of the living before Miguel learns that Hector may have access to Ernesto de la Cruz. This turn of events brings the two characters together and they learn they have more in common then they previously assumed. What makes Hector so important is that despite being dead for many years he serves as a voice of reason and a teacher to Miguel without becoming too preachy or serious. He’s the source of laughs for many situations and his story arc actually becomes a powerful part of the overall tale as he introduces Miguel to what happens when one is forgotten by their family in the real world as well as the potentially unnecessary sacrifices that fame would require. I loved what Bernal did with this character. Hector is charming, memorable, and feels very natural and real. Often times mentor characters can come off as preachy and pretentious, but Hector is none of those things. He’s just an average guy looking to be remembered. He represents the drive in many of us to leave a mark on the ones we love.
Other actors shine bright throughout the film as well, including Benjamin Bratt as Ernesto de la Cruz who is the embodiment of arrogance in the film, Renée Victor who plays Miguel’s hilariously overprotective grandmother Abuelita, and Alanna Ubach who plays Mamá Imelda, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother who initiated the music ban in her family years before. All three play significant parts in the story that can’t be completely explained here in order to avoid spoilers. They’re all very well presented and defined and their own evolutions and revelations as individuals all play into Miguel’s own transformation and the major overall revelations of the story in full. It’s extremely rare that a film, especially an animated one, with so many colorful characters manages to maintain significance among all of them but “Coco”, in true Pixar fashion, gives us all these faces and personalities to appreciate and devotes just the right amount of character development to make each one memorable and worth enjoying.
To state the obvious, “Coco” is an amazingly detailed and well animated this movie. There’s a LOT of work and effort that went into creating the world of the dead and it shows giving us yet another example of why Pixar has become so respected in the world of computer animation, a medium that they pioneered. However that’s no the only place artistically that “Coco” shines. The music is very well produced and written as well giving us a memorable and potentially Oscar worthy song in “Remember Me” and embracing the style and sound of the culture of Mexico without going overboard. Every song and lyric sounds fluid and significant, as it should considering the significance of those songs to the plot, making “Coco” not only a joy to watch, but also to listen to as well.
However what I truly want to glorify here is the story. There’s a lot that goes on in “Coco” and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the twists, turns, and chances that were taken to bring it all together. Not only is the story a delightful presentation of the Day of the Dead and the importance of family in one’s life, it flows well from scene to scene and just when you think you know what’s going on the film takes a major turn that ties everything together nicely. There were moments where I thought “Coco” was delving into predictable territory, but given time I was hit in the face with genuinely shocking revelations that truly impressed me as a viewer in how the filmmakers came around to present a very complete and compelling narrative. What starts on a predictable path turns into an engrossing and truly impressive tale that holds little back and decides to peak at all the right times. Nothing feels rushed and nothing feels phoned in, especially once you see everything come together. It’s just a well defined story handled with true care and consideration by a studio that many may have forgotten is an expert in storytelling and managing life changing narratives and messages with the utmost respect.
There’s a lot more I could say about “Coco” but if I’m being completely honest delving any deeper might ruin an amazing cinematic experience you truly have to see to completely appreciate. It’s a fun, hilarious, and magical animate ride filled with emotion, sincerity, and heart that truly is Pixar at its best. “Coco’s” ability to touch on the joys of family, the pains of death, and the healing power of music all at once and capture these themes in unapologetically real ways without going too over the top cannot be overlooked. It’s a story that will make you cry, laugh, smile, and gasp all in the span of two hours. Its every bit as mesmerizing, culturally relevant and memorable as it promised to be and proves once again that, when faced with a truly a original premise, nobody does it like Pixar.