Pixar has been a bit hit and miss in recent years. Every now and then you get a masterpiece like Inside Out but most of the time Pixar’s recent films have been fun but have lacked the substance of earlier Pixar films. That, plus the fact that few members of the senior creative team were of Mexican descent, made me worried about Coco due to its focus on Mexican culture, particularly Dia de los Muertos. Thankfully though, I needn’t have worried about that, Coco is an incredible film and easily one of Pixar’s best films.
The film focuses on Miguel, a boy living in Mexico with a passion for music, in particular his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, but whose family has forbidden music due to Miguel’ great-great grandfather having abandoned the family to pursue music. On Dia de los Muertos, after having an argument with his family over his passion for music, Miguel runs away and, believing de la Cruz to be his great-great grandfather, breaks into his mausoleum and steals his guitar, cursing Miguel and sending him to the Land of the Dead. In order to leave, Miguel must get a blessing from a member of his family and, due to his passion for music, believes de la Cruz is his best chance, getting the help of Hector, a down-on-his-luck skeleton who used to play with de la Cruz, to help his get the blessing before sunrise, at which point Miguel will be trapped in the Land of the Dead. Now I don’t know much about Mexican culture, the only knowledge I have being from other pieces of media, which gave me some knowledge about the iconography of Dia de los Muertos, and I have to say, Coco is an excellent introduction to Mexican culture. There’s this sense of respect for Mexican culture throughout the film in every frame. I’m sure there are parts that focus on certain elements of Mexican culture that I did not recognise but this gives the film more power by showing just how much respect it has for Mexican culture, focusing on making sure Mexican culture is represented correctly than in stopping the film to explain each new element, if you understand the culture then you’ll get more out of it, which is why I would recommend reading pieces by people of Mexican ancestry about the film, but the film doesn’t play any weaker without the knowledge. This is because there is a solid thematic weight of the film in relation to family and memory. Part of the film involves characters in the Land of the Dead fading from existence when they are no longer remembered in the real world, creating a physical representation of the idea that no-one is truly dead as long as people remember them. This also ties into the importance of music, showing how music is an important force for reconciliation and memory, but also not letting your identity be focused around music and giving music more attention than family. All of these different elements of the film link together to create a powerful, beautiful story that does create a strong emotional reaction.
The voice over performances add to this as well. Despite it being his first film, after doing some small TV work, Anthony Gonzalez is brilliant as Miguel, bringing across the passion for music and de la Cruz effectively and the conflict he has between music and family, along with having a great singing voice for the musical numbers in the film. Gael Garcia Bernal meanwhile is great comic relief as Hector, working well off of Gonzalez to create a strong dynamic between the characters, along with Bernal having some powerful emotional moments at the end of the film. Benjamin Bratt is another strong comedic presence in the film, mainly in the melodramatic films staring de la Cruz, with Bratt nailing that style of acting, along with giving de la Cruz a different edge later in the film, which I won’t say so I won’t spoil the film. Alanna Ubach as Mama Elena and Renee Victor as Abuelita Elena meanwhile both show a strong love for Miguel and their concern for his safety is presented brilliantly, whilst good comedy and drama is woven from their anger towards music, with Ubach giving a more powerful side to this towards the end of the film. Other great comedic turns are seen from Alfonso Arau, Selene Luna, Dyanna Ortelli, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias and Natalia Cordova-Buckley, whilst strong dramatic work is seen from Ana Ofelia Murguia and Edward James Olmos.
On a technical level, Coco is one of Pixar’s most impressive films. The colours presented throughout the film are stunning, especially in the Land of the Dead, the bright neon colours used in the Land of the Dead creating some of the most unique environments in a Pixar film. Special praise also has to go to the character designs and animation, both in the real world, the animation for the titular Coco being stunning, and for the skeletons. The way the film utilises the nature of skeletons, mainly being loose and easy to split apart, creates some brilliant moments of body language, mainly for Hector, some of the best comedy in the film coming from the animation for all of Hector’s bones. I also loved the attention that was given to the animation during the musical scenes whenever a character plays the guitar, the movement of the hands seems to replicate what the real life movements of the hand when playing guitar. Speaking of which, for a film that focuses so much on the power of music, if the music wasn’t good then this side of the narrative could have fallen apart. Thankfully though, the music in the film is excellent. Once again Michael Giacchino creates a brilliant score for Pixar, his score replicating the style of Mariachi music which adds to the feeling of respect towards Mexican culture. The songs meanwhile are excellent, making use of traditional Mexican folk songs and songs written for the film, the standout song in the film being Remember Me written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who previously worked together on the songs for Frozen, with Remember Me being a beautiful song with different meaning given to the song each time it is played, whilst the other songs written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina have a solid mix of comedy and weight, varying depending on the tone that is needed for each scene.
Overall, Coco is a film that could very easily have gone wrong in the hands of a lesser creative team. The level of respect the film has for Mexican culture is present in every frame and this level of respect, along with the strong thematic weight of the film, helps to create a powerful, resonant experience that easily stands alongside the best work of Pixar.
My Rating: 5/5