Director: Lee Unkrich
Screenplay: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos
Runtime: 109 Minutes
It's amazing to consider that over two decades on from their first feature production Pixar are still producing masterpieces at the rate that they are. Even after the quibbles and middling efforts of the past couple of years, when Pixar is willing to pull out all the stops and take another risk on a completely original venture they can produce something as timeless, thoughtful and entertaining as anything in the field or medium.
Coco is a major step forward for them in terms of diversifying their roster with an all-Latino of characters and performers (except for studio mainstay John Ratzenberger). A visual adventure centred around the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, the story follows a 12-year-old boy named Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) who is accidentally transported to the land of the dead, where he seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great-grandfather to return him to his family among the living.
The respect being paid to the Mexican celebration – as well as the lasting contributions that Mexico has left on popular culture – is phenomenal. The reverence it has for the setting, culture and its heritage folklore are rendered with an overwhelmingly beautiful attention to visual detail as much as it is to its themes and its characters. Its focus on family and tradition standing as the central pillars of life affirm a sense of grounding in a world not represented in such an earnest fashion in western animation or media.
Although the Rivera family’s refusal to indulge in music of any kind might come across on paper like something of a cliché, it feels understandable given the iron will of the matriarchs who have sustained such a system of rule for so long is to avoid revisiting the pain of the past at the hands of the patriarchal figure who abandoned them.
The human figures and world look as textured and lived in as any world Pixar has created, and that’s against the intricate scale of the beautiful land of the dead, with is a colourful and unique looking world built around the key concepts and traditions of the celebration. The bridge that links both worlds is literally formed from the Aztec marigold petals used to guide the spirits back to the living world, and functions in a similar manner to the kind of bureaucratic universe like Pixar’s other work. The lives of those on the other side and their continued existences rely on those who remember them, and without their ongoing memory, they fade from being.
On top of this is the ticking clock element of Miguel’s prolonged exposure to the other world slowly fading his physical form into those of the skeletons who permanently reside there. The character designs are wonderfully simple yet expressive, with human eyes glowing through the darkness their skulls. There’s a multitude of characters but they all serve some sort of purpose even as a collective of representation.
It’s a journey of self-discovery for Miguel that just happens to take place in a setting familiar to Mexico and its inhabitants, as well as seeing him literally face up to his family’s past. The young Anthony Gonzalez playing Miguel is great, as is Gael García Bernal as a trickster companion Héctor, and Benjamin Bratt as Miguel’s larger than life pop star idol and songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz.
Not much more is to be said concerning its straightforward narrative, there’s no mystery to solve but the discovery of certain elements and reveals feel humble and honest, especially regarding where the antagonism lies and who ultimately ends up as the villain of the story. It’s a familiar premise as far as a narrative is concerned, and plays out in a fashion with reveals that will be understandably easy to guess for audiences who aren’t children, but it’s the sweep of the storytelling and how well it hits the emotional beats that allow it to far surpass expectation.
What’s revealing is why the film is named Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) – Miguel’s great-grandmother whose father abandoned the family when she was young – as opposed to something broader or more focused on our central figure. That is until the final scenes, in which everything comes to a dramatic and emotional conclusion that Pixar hasn’t reached since Inside Out. It’s genuinely surprising and hard-hitting in a subtle but extraordinarily sensitive fashion that will unquestionably leave audiences struggling to dry their eyes as they leave.
Coco is another dazzling, wonderful and reverential piece of filmmaking from Pixar. Amazing to look at, feverishly entertaining and deeply moving on a small-scale level. This is one of their best works in years; a considerate cultural representation and one that may only grow in appreciation as time goes on.