Review: “Coco”

5 out of 5 stars.

I’m sure that, as I was watching “Coco,” a minor issue or two regarding the plot pinged in the back of my head, but honestly, I can’t remember now what those issues might have been.  That’s because “Coco,” the latest animated feature from Pixar, is about as close to perfect as a movie can get.

“Coco” is directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, with a screenplay by Molina and Matthew Aldrich.  It’s set in present-day Mexico over Dia de los Muertos, a holiday during which families celebrate and remember their ancestors, leaving out remembrances for their deceased loved ones to help them cross over to the land of the living to visit their relatives for one night.  The film’s protagonist is 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez).  His great-great-grandfather was a musician, who ultimately left his wife and daughter for his career; in retaliation, his wife banned music from the family, teaching her daughter and grandchildren and each generation after how to make shoes.  Miguel is the first member of the family who doesn’t oppose music—in fact, he loves it, and wants to be a musician just like his idol, the legendary Mexican singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  Ernesto’s motto was “Seize the moment,” so Miguel decides it’s time to do just that, by going against his family’s wishes and entering a local talent contest.  But his attempt instead transports him to the Land of the Dead, a colorful city where the deceased reside so long as the living still keep their memories alive.

Miguel only has one night to retrieve a blessing from one of his deceased family members and return to the land of the living before he becomes permanently dead, but the condition that he must give up music leads him to go on a quest to find Ernesto—who he thinks may be his mysterious great-great-grandfather—knowing that a fellow musician will understand him better.  Miguel is a charming and likeable protagonist, supported by a lot of colorful and equally-charming supporting characters.  Bratt is a great fit to voice a big personality like Ernesto, and we get a nice twist on the animal-sidekick front with the ugly-cute Dante, a stray dog with a perpetually-dangling tongue who follows Miguel everywhere.  Gael Garcia Bernal voices Hector, a bum who decides to help Miguel find Ernesto in the afterlife; in exchange, when Miguel gets back to the land of the living he will put up Hector’s photo, allowing the forgotten man to finally cross over.  Hector steals the show as the film’s most complicated character; other standouts include Miguel’s tough but affectionate Abuelita (Renee Victor), and, in the afterlife, his great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), who is equally tough because she is the one whose husband left for his music career.

Miguel gazes out over the Land of the Dead

One of the beautiful things about “Coco” is its respectful and loving portrayal of Mexican culture; it easily engages and educates audiences who likely know next to nothing about Mexican traditions, but does so without trading in on authenticity.  Interestingly, none of the major heads of productions are Latino (Molina is part Mexican) and much of the wonderful score and songs are by Michael Giacchino and Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, of “Frozen” fame (with some music also by Molina and Germaine Franco).  So it is a testament to how much research the Pixar team must have done to create something that looks and feels so wonderfully real.  The film’s recreation of a small Mexican village is lovingly detailed, and its imagining of the afterlife is both clever (the dead have to pass through an airport-style security check to visit the living) and gorgeous.  The shot when Miguel first enters the Land of the Dead and looks out over the city is nothing short of breathtaking, as seemingly endless rows of lights and colorful floating buildings dot the sky.  It’s important to note too that the entire voice cast is comprised of Latino actors, a rare occurrence for a major studio movie, animated or not.

“Coco” also has a thought-out story with twists that really takes the viewer on the journey alongside Miguel.  Truly, it is nearly impossible to find fault with it; it never drags, it doesn’t have any dumb jokes or unnecessary sequences, and it has a message that isn’t corny or contrived.  “Coco” does a very good job with two things, the first being that it presents death in a way that doesn’t make it seem bad, or scary.  In “Coco,” even after a person has passed on, they remain connected to their living family through their memories of them.  So long as there is someone who remembers them and can pass on their story from generation to generation, that person never truly dies.  It’s a message that is important for adults to hear, but also comprehensible to children watching the film who perhaps haven’t yet fully grasped the concept of death.

The other big message in “Coco” is about family—that family is more important than anything else.  As various characters in “Coco” demonstrate, it is easy to lose sight of that, whether it’s Miguel going against his family to play music, or his relatives disowning an ancestor.  The journey that these characters go on is peppered with emotional little moments, leading up to a devastatingly emotional scene at the end of the film the likes of which haven’t been seen since the montage at the beginning of Pixar’s wonderful 2009 film “Up.”  The feeling that emanates from that scene and those characters are real, not manipulative, because the rest of the story building up to that scene is so well-done.

I mentioned “Up” before—that film was an unexpected delight, and I have to say that “Coco” is by far Pixar’s best movie since then.  It’s important in so many ways, particularly in its non-stereotypical representation of a culture that is very under-represented in Hollywood.  But it’s the film’s sincerity, in its story and in its characters, that will make a lasting impact.  I hate to use the term “instant classic” when describing a film, but I think it’s fair to say that “Coco” is exactly that.

Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated PG.


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