Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (co-director & writer)
Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Alanna Ubach
Based around the Mexican traditional holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Coco follows the story of young Miguel (voiced by Gonzalez) and his yearning to become a musician in spite of his family’s hatred of music. Miguel looks to his hero, the deceased musician Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Bratt), the most famous musician ever to have lived (fictionally), to guide and inspire him. After losing his guitar to his disagreeing grandmother, Miguel takes it upon himself to “borrow” de la Cruz’s. Thanks to a curse revolving around the theft of an object belonging to a dead person, Miguel ends up on a journey through the Land of the Dead, needing the blessing of a deceased family member in order to break the curse and return to the land of the living. Being a Disney/Pixar production is almost a guarantee of earning the big bucks at the box office, but what are the chances of Coco reaching the heights of the likes of Toy Story or Frozen?
Pixar is a studio that’s not afraid to explore previously unexplored terrain when it comes to kids movies. Coco is another example of such an exploration, this time venturing not only into a culture where the main spoken language isn’t English but also into the perception of death, the latter being a theme that may seem a bit much for children. Disney and Pixar together are already a dab hand at approaching the subject and handling it sensitively: 2003’s Finding Nemo, 2009’s Up, 2013’s Frozen and 2015’s The Good Dinosaur are all examples of Pixar pictures that deal with death early on in each film and in a way that serves the narrative. Together the studios have taken it one step further in exploring Mexico’s Día de Muertos, a Mexican holiday in which families get together to remember their ancestors and more recently lost loved ones. It was certainly risk on Disney’s part, but it was a risk that Pixar ensured has paid off. The result is an emotional and thrilling film that reels in children and adults alike, both visually and narratively.
Death in the Mexican culture isn’t treated the same way as the majority of others: whilst most other cultures view death negatively, in Mexico death is celebrated as the next spiritual step. Cemeteries and graves are bright, colourful places where people come to honour the deceased. This is how Miguel and his family are presented to us: a tight-knit family with strong values who also harbour a dislike of music that’s just as strong thanks to Miguel’s musician great-great-grandfather, who left Miguel’s great-great-grandmother to raise their daughter Coco, the movie’s namesake, alone whilst he pursued fame. Not the most family-friendly thing to do, but as always with a movie like this, things aren’t always necessarily how they seem. Along his journey through the Land of the Dead Miguel encounters all sorts of characters. His own deceased relatives are set up as expository characters, and they bombard an already enthralled audience with information, which feels a bit much when visually there is already a huge world to take in. It would perhaps have been easier on an audiences to have had the Land of the Dead explained pre-Miguel’s expedition in order for the story to concentrate more on his journey and the characters. Miguel is also ushered along by a helpful yet has-his-own-agenda character named Héctor (voiced by García Bernal), whose only wish is not to be forgotten by the living, because once that happens, he will disappear from the Land of the Dead as many before him have done. The theme of familial love runs deep in the Mexican culture, and so it runs like a thick vein throughout this film. It is often something that occurs as a realisation for a lead character at the end of a movie, that their family or friends love and care for them and only want the best for them, but for Coco it serves as a backbone. Miguel knows he is loved, he only wants the chance to be himself and for his family to move on from past strife.
Visually, just when you thought they couldn’t get any better, the movie is another step up for Pixar’s digital artists. From the lines on the faces of older characters to crisp, totally-looks-real shot glasses, the animation is remarkable. The design of the cemetery is based on actual Mexican cemeteries, and the Land of the Dead itself based on the city of Guanajuato, a city full of colourful buildings that almost look crammed together on a hillside (Google it, it’s breathtaking) and looks even better when lit up at night. To say the Land of the Dead is a different take on the afterlife to what we usually see in movies is a complete understatement. Try to compare it to that of, say, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and you’ll find them incomparable. The Land of the Dead and Día de Muertos are just perfect animation fodder for the famous studio, and they’ve done a superb job of bringing both to life (ironically). Similarly with the music – the movie’s signature tune, Remember Me, was written by Frozen’s own Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, a beautiful yet simple ballad. All of Michael Giacchino’s score is heavily Latin-influenced and is perfectly in-keeping with the emotional tones of the movie, as Latin-based music is very emotive. All together the animation, score and songs only serve to enhance and already unique film.
Having really gone to town on their research (literally – many involved in the making of the film, including director Unkrich, travelled to Mexico) and hiring a cast all with Latino heritage (bar Pixar’s lucky charm, John Ratzenberger), the film indeed feels very culturally apt, right down to the use of beautiful Spanish guitar. There are also other elements of the story that suggest other influences, such as the story itself bearing a resemblance to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, though obviously far more light-hearted. Even Miguel’s adopted dog is named Dante, after a horse ridden by de la Cruz in one of his television shows within the film, but possibly also a nod to Alighieri. One also cannot deny the similarities between Coco and 20th Century Fox’s 2014 animation The Book of Life (although now Disney owns 20th Century Fox through its purchase of 21st Century Fox in late 2017, The Book of Life is technically now a part of Disney’s ever-extending library). For all the research and influences that have gone into Coco, the outcome is a film that, whether it reaches the heights of past Pixar successes or not, has the ability to endure. The exposition could have been more diluted and had certain fairly unnecessary background characters lifted, by overall it’s a film that can be revisited again and again and audiences of all ages will always find something in it to stimulate emotions or to be simply entertained by. It will be a long time before this film is forgotten, if ever.