Synopsis – Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.
My Take – For a long time now, Pixar has become a brand that has always been associated with brilliant yet thought-provoking films and it’s no secret that every time they tie up with Disney, they end up making films that caters well to people of all ages all thanks to the presence of lovable characters, funny sequences, memorable soundtracks, and heartfelt emotions. Keeping in mind, we have been through uncreative animated films this year (like The Emoji Film, The Lego Ninjago Film and The Boss Baby), I was really looking forward to this as an original return to form for the animation studio, and thankfully, this Lee Unkrich directed film is not only an enormously fun and enjoyable family adventure, but also manages to be one of their best features in recent times. Sure, the film does share a resemblance of the 2014 film, The Book of Life, a feature I personally loathed for being too kid-friendly and too contrived for my taste, but here this film, as an animated comedy/musical and as an event for families whose exposure to Pixar is now a generation thick, this film has just about everything you’d expect & stands as a stark, defiant pronouncement that Pixar‘s quality bubble hasn’t actually popped despite this being their 19th release. I have always loved Pixar films (well, most of them) and was looking forward to this as an original return to form for the animation studio. It followed through on that promise and then some. Stunningly animated, culturally relevant and emotionally powerful, this animated stunner is Pixar‘s best original film since Inside Out. The story follows Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a 12 year old Mexican boy living in a fictional village named Santa Cecilia, in contemporary Mexico, with his very strict shoe making family who also share a consuming hatred of music. However, Miguel however doesn’t share the same passions as his extended family and often hides away learning the gentle guitar riffs of music and screen legend Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt).
Wanting to entering a talent show competition, Miguel tries to borrow the guitar of de la Cruz from his grave, but accidentally ends up in the Land of the Dead itself full of hundreds of families ancestors who are now skeletons, and has only until sunrise to return home before becoming a skeleton himself. With the help of a trickster skeleton named Hector (voiced by Gael García Bernal) and a street dog named Dante, Miguel must find de la Cruz and seek his blessing in order to return to the land of the living, while also avoiding the spirits of his dead family. Written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina and lovingly directed by Lee Unkrick (The Good Dinosaur), this film named after a senile (or so it would seem) maternal great- grandmother character, is nothing short of a love letter to Mexico, just like Moana was a positive epistle to the South Pacific islands and Brave is an affectionate note to Scotland, etc. The one thing that has made Pixar Studios so successful in making high quality CGI films is not just the brilliant animation and the love and craftsmanship that go into each effort, it’s those wonderful stories. While the kiddies can wallow in the vivid visual spectrum, high energy action and such lovable and classic characters as Sully, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Nemo, Lightning McQueen Wall-e and Bing-Bong, among others, their parents can relish the thoughtful and interesting plot lines. The film had some exposition to get through in the beginning and got through it did with panache and familial familiarity. The back-story is told through paper cut-outs and we learned why music is downright detested in the extended family. Though the attention to details is stunning, my mind unconsciously went down the dream-broken-dream-fulfilled road of redemption. But ever so surreptitiously Pixar surprises with a sharp turn and delivers another sumptuous piece of storytelling with director Lee Unkrich holding the steering wheel. The story had so much creative energy put into it and was perfectly infused with respect to the Mexican culture as well as having some very emotional moments. This isn’t so much of a sad tearjerker, but what it does bring is a truly deep and genuine sense of familial love, which plays the central role of pretty much everything that happens in the film. You may have seen the ‘family is important’ message before, but the film does it in such an elegant and genuine way that you won’t be able to resist feeling so closely connected to the central family here, which makes the film’s plot so much more powerful and uplifting to follow, pulling you in to the point that you’ll be crying tears of joy and family nostalgia all at once. The theme remembers is connected to the setting of the film which is the Day of the Death in Mexico. The Day of the Death in Mexico is holiday to celebrate, welcoming your dead family soul back to the living world; it is the time for family to regenerate together. In that day, people who are participate will hang up their ancestors’ photo, putting the things they like and food next to the photo and memo them; it is like a memorial ceremony. This whole story is based on the traditional culture of Mexican holiday, Day of the Death. Pixar Animation Studios also does a great work on trying to let audience has a concept of the Mexican traditional culture of Day of the Death, they explain it through the film, either 10~15 words one sentence only or conversation between people. The Day of the Death is a very inspired setting, you can create many stories with it; Pixar did create a good one.
Another element that I fall in love with in this film is the plot twist and what it brings to our protagonist, Miguel, and his family, dead or alive. I mean seriously, no one would ever see that coming, the shocking revelation that will make our mouth open wide and turn the tide of the story. This one is unquestionably a film about bridging gaps. In the film, a literal bridge of marigold petals links the Worlds of the Living and the Dead for a night. Here, director Lee Unkrich and the team at Pixar clearly went at great lengths to not only understand the holiday itself but also how to best present it to those unfamiliar. This isn’t a film spearheaded by Mexican artists to introduce the world to one of our beloved idiosyncrasies, like the inevitably comparable “The Book of Life” but to simplify it as “a culturally appropriative work by a non-Mexican” would be to not only miss the point of the story told in it but to miss the point in its creation as well. Probably the biggest, but certainly not fatal flaw lies in its twists. Given how I thought Ernesto was a rather shady person from the start, I predicted some of his actions towards Miguel. Granted, they were executed with grace despite their predictability, which is why I took only a small bit from that. Otherwise, it has plenty of touching moments and fantastic chuckles interspersed throughout, even unintentionally. The characters are very well written and can provide for many reminders on why family is indeed important, no matter how enormous and bold our ambitions for fame may be. They can give us emotion we can’t feel from simple friend relationships, and give us memories that, once they come back to us, cannot be lost for the remainder of our time on Earth. What’s more the film doesn’t stop to parse many of the culture- specific details, but rather lets them wash over you in a sea of color and textures. This gives audiences otherwise unaccustomed to the traditions of Dia de los Muerto the challenge of picking things up via context clues while giving audiences like myself the dopamine tickle one gets by referencing la chancla. There’s a lived-in quality which is nice considering the film could have so easily been a guided tour through Mexican cultural mythology a la The Book of Life. On top of that, the animation is the usual Pixar glory, as it looks vibrant, bright, and crystal clear. Alongside the familiar Pixar character designs, the Land of the Dead that Miguel ends up in contains so much detail and whimsy that even the smallest details are worth praising. This is one of the most beautiful animated films that Pixar has ever put out with its stunning colors and eye popping detail shown in the Land of the Dead and how huge and colorful it is compared to the land of the living. I also liked the look they gave the skeletons by making them not creepy as well as giving them the ability for them to do many creative possibilities with their bones. The voice cast consisting of a variety of talent also does a great job. On the whole, ‘Coco’ is a timeless instant classic that is effortlessly charming, brilliantly paced and beautifully crafted.
Directed – Lee Unkrich
Rated – PG
Run Time – 109 minutes