Pixar’s latest offering, Coco, is the animation studio’s second premiere of 2017, following Cars 3 this summer, and the first original, non-sequel since The Good Dinosaur in 2015. Pixar has made a name for itself over the last two decades as an animation house that infuses compelling concepts with a great deal of heart in order to entertain audiences young and old. Though there’s been a debate about whether Pixar should focus more on original ideas over sequels to their beloved films, Coco is proof the Disney-owned animation studio can still come up with new concepts with as much magic and heart as their first string of hits. Coco is a heartwarming story about family and a well-crafted coming of age tale steeped beautifully in the traditions of Mexico’s Día de los Muertos.
Coco tells the story of young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who is descended from a family of shoemakers – but who has no desire to join the family business. Instead, Miguel dreams of becoming a musician and following in the footsteps of his idol, the greatest musician to ever live, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). However, there’s one major factor preventing Miguel from going after his dreams: his family’s decades-long ban on music that has been passed down through the generations. As the story goes, Miguel’s great great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his family to follow his dreams, leaving Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) to raise Miguel’s great grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), on her own.
When Miguel’s family discover he’s been idolizing the music of Ernesto de la Cruz and teaching himself how to play guitar in secret, they forbid him from pursuing a career as a musician. In order to prove he can follow in the footsteps of Ernesto, Miguel steals the famed musician’s guitar on Día de los Muertos and accidentally transports himself to the Land of the Dead. Though Miguel meets his deceased ancestors, they also don’t understand Miguel’s love of music, and he sets out in search of Ernesto with the help of charming con man Hector (Gael García Bernal), who needs Miguel’s help in order to visit the Land of the Living. However, Miguel must find a way home before the sun rises, marking the end of Día de los Muertos, or else he’ll be trapped in the Land of the Dead forever.
For Coco, Pixar assembled a team that are well versed in the animation studio’s offerings – and it shows insofar as the film presents the best of what the studio is known for, while offering a completely new and compelling adventure. The movie was directed by Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), and co-directed by Adrian Molina (The Good Dinosaur); the latter co-wrote the script with Matthew Aldrich (Cleaner), based on a story by Unkrich, Molina, Aldrich, and Jason Katz (Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation). Unkrich reteamed with Toy Story 3 producer Darla K. Anderson, while fellow Pixar vet Michael Giacchino (Inside Out, Jurassic World) served as composer. Music is, of course, an integral aspect of the film, so Gonzalez and Bratt lend their voices to a number of catchy and fun songs in Coco – though it’s not quite a musical in the vein of Disney’s typical animated offerings.
The story of Coco is a rather typical hero’s journey/coming of age tale, with Miguel going on a grand adventure in the Land of the Dead and learning an important lesson about both himself and his family along the way. Miguel’s motivation throughout the movie – wanting to follow his dream, but not feeling understood by his family – provides for an exceptionally universal jumping off point, and acts as the anchor around which the entire film’s emotional arc revolves. Even so, there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the movie that prevent the story from feeling stale; in that way, Coco somewhat resembles a telenovela, with a big third act twist that completely upends the status quo of the movie. Still, this twist only helps to further develop the main theme of the movie, which is the identity of self vs the identity of family.
Still, while the story of Coco is a major strength, it’s heightened and contrasted by the colorful backdrop of the Land of the Dead. The expansive world is beautifully animated – from the wide shots of the Land as Miguel enters, to each setting as he journeys through the world’s various neighborhoods. As varied as as any real world city, and populated by skeletons resembling calaveras as well as neon-colored spirit guides, the Land of the Dead in Coco is absolutely eye-catching and a wondrous thing to behold, brought to life superbly by the animators at Pixar. Further, the mythology of the world is well established so that viewers with all ranges of knowledge about Día de los Muertos and Mexican culture can understand the rules of this afterlife.
Beyond the Land of the Dead, Coco brings Miguel’s home and family to life with bright, vibrant colors in the Land of the Living as well. On the whole, Coco utilizes Pixar’s typical 3D CGI animation style to craft a rich world full of depth – both for the living characters and those who are dead. Additionally, Miguel and his entire family are brought to life with varying levels of development. Because the family is so large, Coco mainly focuses on Miguel and his great great grandparents, since the ancestors started the rift in the family that’s felt by Miguel in present day. Still, the story provides little details about Miguel’s various family members to give them some characterization and offer more depth to the characters than viewers may expect. The result is a story full of heart and drama following characters that the audience can’t help but love like their own family.
All in all, Coco is a fantastic addition to the Pixar library with all the heart and emotion of the animation studio’s best offerings, as well as visuals that surpass even the company’s most eye-catching films. Its story is heartwarming and universal, and richly textured thanks to its roots in Mexican culture. Though some elements of Coco are a bit dark for very young children, Pixar’s latest is perhaps the perfect holiday film for families – and it will no doubt be entertaining for Pixar fans of any age. Additionally, with the exceptional visuals, Coco may be worth a 3D or IMAX viewing. Altogether, Coco has all the makings of another Pixar classic, proving the animation studio’s original ideas are just as strong as they ever were.
Coco is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 109 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements.
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