There are few film divisions (if any) out there that have matched the quality of Disney-Pixar. Ever since Toy Story, the animation house has released hit after hit that enchant children and entertain adults. Sure, they’ve had a few misfires along the way, but any other animation studio would be proud to have what is deemed a Pixar misfire. Now comes the latest piece of wondrous entertainment from the dream factory of Pixar with Coco, a colorful animated tale that is centered round the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Once again, Pixar has delivered an enchanting tale with Coco that features everything that makes Pixar great – it has ample heart, plenty of jokes for adults and children, and groundbreaking visuals unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
The story of Coco is a bit convoluted when explained in detail, but the screenplay by Adrian Molina (who also serves as co-director) and Matthew Aldrich (from a story by Molina, Aldrich, Jason Katz, and director Lee Unkrich) flows seamlessly when placed on the screen. It concerns young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and his ambitions to be a great musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benajmin Bratt), a deceased musician with an Elvis-like crossover appeal between records and movies. However, Miguel’s family history is tied to the world of music, and years before his great-great-grandfather aspired to be a musician and abandoned his family, meaning that his family swore to shed their lives of music in every form possible. Practicing in secret, Miguel learns the guitar and holds music dearly away from the stern, prying eyes of his grandmother (Renée Victor).
Attempting to take the stage for a local talent show, Miguel is discovered by his family with his grandmother smashing his prized guitar. However, a bit of youthful curiosity causes Miguel to believe that the late Ernesto de la Cruz was his great-great-grandfather and sneaks into his mausoleum in order to borrow his guitar for the big show. It being Día de los Muertos means that something mystical is afoot and the young boy is suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead, a neon-infused world of wonders where the deceased live on in skeleton form. If Miguel doesn’t return to the land of the living before daybreak, he’ll die and be trapped with the dead on the other side of existence. His only hope is for a family member to send him back, but his family’s matriarch Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) will only do so under the condition that young boy never again play music. Miguel refuses this condition and teams up with Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a specter desperate to be remembered, in order to find his other relative, the famed Ernesto de la Cruz, who he’s certain will send him back and allow him to seize his moment and be the musician that he believes he’s destined to become.
As this is a film from the brilliant minds of Pixar, Coco is a triumph in its intricate design, which really comes to life once we’ve traversed to the Land of the Dead. It’s a wild visual experience overflowing in lush colors and lively character design. The humor of the film is layered and nuanced as to appeal to the children and the adults taking them to the theater. And there’s a real celebration of Mexican culture on display that doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of customs and traditions in order to be understood. I won’t be the only one to notice the parallels between Coco and Back to the Future, but by no means should this film be mistaken as a rip off. It’s a unique and vibrant work of animated art that builds its own mythology and set of rules that enchant the imagination of kids and adults alike.
And, of course, Coco hits its emotional beat. Boy, does it really hit them. The film’s story focuses intently on family and remembrance of one’s ancestors, and it culminates in an emotional climax amplified by the tender, gorgeous song “Remember Me.” It’s not enough that Coco is visually enticing and thoroughly humorous, it also has to turn you into a weeping mess at the end, scrambling afterward to pull up your grandmother’s phone number amidst the flowing tears.
Recently, Pixar has placed its focus on a number of sequels to its previous hits with recent films like Cars 3 and Finding Dory. As for their original fare, Coco stands out as one of the best the magnificent animation studio has made since Inside Out, if not better. It’s a celebration of a culture that has been unfairly maligned in the political landscape, scapegoated to appeal to the ignorant. There’s a heart behind Coco that places an emphasis on family values more than any political demagogue could. We all have family and we all share a culture in one way or another, and Coco brings these two worlds together in a reverent celebration of life and love.