Pixar returns to form with a Día de Muertos tale full of vibrancy, fun, music, and emotional punch.
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach
Runtime: 105 mins
Release Date: 19 January 2018
The latest from animation giant Pixar has found itself mired in a wee controversy. It seems that some are accusing the studio, and their parent company Disney, of ripping off 2014’s The Book of Life. The similarities are certainly striking. Both are based around Día de Muertos, the traditional Mexican festival of the dead, and both heavily feature music as a narrative tool. I think, however, that there’s room in this town for two Day of the Dead animations. Moreover, however you might want to frame this controversy – Disney’s cultural misappropriation, Pixar plagiarism, The Book of Life as David to Coco‘s Goliath – one fact remains: Coco is hands down the better film.
The film centres around Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy living in the Mexican town of Santa Cecilia who dreams of becoming a musician. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Decades ago, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his great-great-grandmother to pursue a musical career, and ever since the Riveras have abhorred songs, tunes, and melodies. When he hears about a talent contest in town, Miguel sees an opportunity to show his family how much music means to him. After his own guitar is destroyed, Miguel sneaks into the shrine of local legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the greatest musician in the world, to “borrow” his.
It seems that stealing from the dead is a metaphysical no-no, because no sooner has Miguel laid his hands on the guitar than he finds himself in the Land of the Dead. This is the Mexican afterlife, where fancifully decorated skeletal versions of the departed spend eternity. And it’s a stunning visual delight. Think the classic adventure game Grim Fandango as seen through a kaleidoscope. It’s a dizzying, multi-layered city festooned with every colour imaginable. As a cinematic space, this is one of Pixar’s greatest achievements.
The skeletal characters are also deserving of special mention. Pixar has developed a habit of aping physical techniques in their animation. Finding Dory‘s Hank the octopus moved like a hand-operated puppet. The demolition derby in Cars 3 had the appearance of toy cars in a muddy playground. Here, you could be forgiven for mistaking the skeletons of the Land of the Dead for stop-motion creations. Their movements have that tangible, slightly unreal feel to them, a feat that more than impresses in computer animation. Twenty-three years since Toy Story and Pixar are still outdoing themselves.
Marooned in the afterlife, and with until sunrise to get out alive, Miguel must find one of his ancestors so that their blessing can return him home. He enlists the help of down and out Hector (Gael García Bernal), who also wants to visit the living world again, before he is forgotten. You see, the dead live on only when they are remembered. When there is no one left to remember them, the dead succumb to the “final death”. In a film full of those who have already died, it’s a neat way of adding a little existential peril.
It also feeds into the film’s overarching theme of the power of music. Music has many powers in Coco. Songs can help people remember, they can bring peace and fire the passions. Music, as one of the film’s songs puts it, is a language, and it can bring people together, bridge divides, and reignite old loves. The beautiful score is by the chameleonic Michael Giacchino, who continues to prove that he is one of the best composers working today. The musical numbers, in the wonderful Mexican folk tradition, are composed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame. One of these, “Remember Me”, returns throughout the film, once in a touching duet between a father and daughter, another in the film’s emotional climax, which I’m not ashamed to admit left me a blubbering wreck.
The second act drags a little, and there are a couple of twists that are a bit too obvious (one is telegraphed half a film away, the other shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Pixar’s thematic predilections), but those are minor quibbles in a film this good. This is Pixar’s best effort since the superlative Inside Out, and more than makes up for the slump the studio’s been in the past couple of years. Coco is vibrant, fun, and packs a devastating emotional wallop.