Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.
The latest film from Pixar Animation Studios takes place entirely in Mexico, with a cast made up entirely of Mexican actors (with the exception of Pixar staple John Ratzenberger in a minor part), and its story centres around the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ holiday. Our protagonist is Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12 year old boy who dreams of being a musician against his family’s wishes, who have held a deep hatred for all forms of music for generations as a result of Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoning his family to start a music career. When Miguel discovers a link between his family and his hero, the famous Mexican musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), he makes a fateful decision that sees him cross over into the land of the dead, just as the holiday is about to begin.
This isn’t the first time Pixar have tackled a different culture (they tackled Scotland in 2012’s ‘Brave’), but this is a far superior film largely down to the willingness of the filmmakers to fully commit to the story they are trying to tell without sacrificing the cultural elements. The film may have been directed by an American in Lee Unkrich, but it’s clear that a lot of care and attention has gone into getting the details right and ‘Coco’ feels like a living, breathing tribute to the country that inspired it. The ‘land of the dead’ is brought to life vividly with an explosion of colour, and the screenplay uses this setting to explore some incredibly mature themes for a film aimed at children, without sacrificing the humour and adventure that drive the plot forward. Themes such as death and loss are handled with sensitivity and care, and I thought the film did a wonderful job with the central idea of being forgotten and what that means to the characters, dovetailing neatly with the dementia that inflicts Miguel’s great grandmother.
In the land of the dead, Miguel’s main companion is a trickster called Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a man with limited links to the ‘real’ world anymore and destined to be forgotten by the end of this year’s festival. He acts as Miguel’s introduction to this alternate world, helping to establish the system and rules that apply to the land of the dead, ultimately forming the basis for the emotional material the screenplay attempts, successfully, to deal with. It’s a vibrant, colourful landscape filled with music and laughter and it’s a joy to spend time in, and like many of Pixar’s great films, it uses animation and bright characters to camouflage moving and emotional material that will ring true with adults as well as children.
Looking at Pixar’s recent output shows a plethora of sequels alongside the disappointment that was ‘The Good Dinosaur’, but films like ‘Coco’ and 2015’s ‘Inside Out’ show they still have the ability to create original, smartly scripted and imaginatively crafted movies, and ‘Coco’ is an excellent addition to their canon.
Directed By: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Selene Luna, Cheech Marin and John Ratzenberger