The title of Pixar’s new animated delight refers not to the main character, but to his great-grandmother, Mamá Coco. It’s a fitting title to encapsulate the themes of family evident in Coco, and the importance of balancing ambition with familial connections. The protagonist is actually twelve-year-old Miguel Rivera, the youngest member of a close-nit family of Mexican shoemakers who have forbidden any sort of music due to Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoning his wife and child to follow his dream of being a musician. Miguel, of course, is obsessed with music, playing his homemade guitar in a secret room dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz – Mexico’s most famous musician, and possibly Miguel’s long lost great-grandfather. When Miguel attempts to steal…er, borrow, de la Cruz’s guitar to enter his village’s Day of the Dead talent show, he winds up cursed and trapped in the Land of the Dead. In order to return to the Land of the Living, he needs to get the blessing of a deceased ancestor – but one who will encourage his desire to play music.
Coco is a beautiful love letter to Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead holiday. While it’s not the first animated film to do so, with 2014’s The Book of Life even having a similar plot, director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina have filled the feature with vivid neon colours, a lively soundtrack, imaginative set-pieces, and the usual array of inventive characters so that the film works as a respectful depiction and representation of foreign traditions while still fitting alongside other classic features in Pixar’s filmography. The Land of the Dead is filled with visual treats, with strong contrasting orange and blue tones across the buildings and the delightful multi-coloured designs of the alebrije – animalistic spirit guides who serve the dead. Fittingly for a movie where music plays such an important role, the story is often told through the soundtrack – with Michael Giacchino’s score alternating between a simple acoustic guitar and full mariachi bands. The original songs by Frozen composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, with Adrian Molina and Germaine Franco, regularly mark Coco’s best scenes, with a musical battle towards the climax that was easily the standout moment from any animated picture I saw in 2017. The main song, “Remember Me”, is reprised and covered in so many different ways throughout the film that while I found it cheesy and bland when it first played I was fighting back tears during its final rendition.
Pixar continue their trend of believable animated characters with the cast of Coco. Anthony Gonzalez puts an astonishing amount of emotion into his performance as Miguel, speaking and singing, so that the heart of the story and Miguel’s desires is never swept away by the cartoonish setting and hijinks. The animation of Héctor Rivera – a dead conman who enlists Miguel to help him visit his family in the Land of the Living – is inspired, with different parts of his skeletal body acting separately from each other at times. Every member of Miguel’s family, living and dead, feels individual, and it’s refreshing to see how even when they disagree with Miguel they all want what’s best for him. The design of Grandma Coco is particularly heart wrenching, with a kindly withered face that makes even the slightest facial response a major emotional moment. But the real standout character of Coco has to be Dante – a hairless dog that is possibly the dumbest character to appear in a Pixar film, with bulging eyes and a floppy tongue that regularly ends up wrapped around Dante’s own face. From the moment this dog appeared on screen I was giggling like a mad man and continued to do so for every scene he appeared. If Pixar doesn’t make an animated short just for Dante they’re wasting one of their best ever characters.
Coco is a familiar story told well. It hits all the beats one would expect from a Pixar film, and many of the twists are predictable from the outset. I was disappointed by a villainous reveal towards the end, particularly as up until that point the characters all had valid reasons to oppose each other without feeling unnecessarily antagonistic, but ultimately a film about music needs a big final number. Familiar doesn’t mean bad, though, and due to the Mexican influences and the quality of filmmaking Coco demonstrates how effective traditional stories can be.
4 and a half stars.