Pixar has had a rough couple of years, with movies that lack the signature mix of quality, emotional storytelling and breathtaking visuals. But, just in time for the holidays, Disney Pixar has given the world a gift: their latest film, Coco.
Now, I don’t want to sound hyperbolic but this film is one of the best of the year. It is masterfully written, has wonderful compositions and songs, and takes your breath away with the artwork. It manages to introduce audiences to Mexican culture and tradition without relying on stereotypes or body humor. I know a lot of skeptical viewers worried this was a Book of Life ripoff (yours truly included) but the story told in Coco is vastly different, and in my opinion, better put together.
Coco follows Miguel, a young boy in a family of shoemakers who wants to be a musician. However, his great-great grandfather was a musician who left the family and never returned, and thus the whole family turned away from all music. When Miguel’s guitar and records are destroyed by his family, he runs away to try and perform at a music competition to prove that his dream is worth following. He takes the guitar of a famous singer Ernesto de la Cruz, who Miguel believes is his great-great grandfather, only to discover that his act of thievery lands him in the land of the dead. Now it’s a race against time to find out the truth and get his family’s blessing to be a musician before the sun rises.
One thing I loved about the film is how they represent Mexican people and their culture. One of tradition, family, and vibrant colors. All different aspects of Dia de los Muertos was represented and treated with respect. The slang and mannerisms used were accurate, and the film felt wholly cemented in the place. One thing I noticed is how openly affectionate family members are with one another, hugging and kissing and using pet names, which is common in not just Mexican families but a lot of Spanish-speaking cultures.
The animation is spectacular. The characters have great expression and are incredibly fluid in their movement. The skeletons have a unique way of moving and coming back together when they fall apart that gives them such personality. The designs of the skeletons are also fun and unique, making it so you never confused two. The Land of the Death is an incredibly detailed world of bright colors and massive buildings that feels expansive. Every setting is beautifully crafted and the colors, by God, the colors! It’s one of the most visually stunning films of the year.
The music is expertly written, as you’d assume from a Disney venture. Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez, the team behind Frozen, wrote the movie’s signature song “Remember Me” which is a real tear jerker. Germaine Franco, Michael Giacchino, & Adrian Molina worked on the other songs, including “Un Poco Loco” and “The World is Mi Familia” which are fun and very reminiscent of Mexican classics. There are actually very few songs in the movie about music, but the ones present are exceptionally memorable. I do recommend listening to them in both English and Spanish; they are identical but they have a different feel.
What most audiences will take away from this movie is the unique sound. Again, it is very Mexican, with the lovely guitar and mariachi music, as well as peeks at several other genres. It plays off this tradition of black-and-white musicals that was big back in the heyday of early 20th century Mexican cinema. This movie is pulling from Mexican culture left and right, and I’m sure in a lot of ways that thrill audiences familiar with it and not.
In terms of the acting, I only saw the English version (though I would have happily watched the Spanish one had it been playing anywhere near me) so that’s the only version I can comment on. As a whole ensemble, every choice was on point. Benjamin Bratt as de la Cruz is a great fit, because he has this big, booming presence that really adds to the grandiose star quality of the character. Gael García Bernal as Hector, Miguel’s companion on his journey, has excellent comedic timing but can tune into that emotional side when it’s needed.
Alanna Ubach as the matriarch of the family, Mama Imelda, is amazing, with a commanding but still endearing presence that solidifies her place as matriarch of the family. They never belittle her struggle or make her seem cold and shriveled. But the entire movie rested on the shoulders of Anthony Gonzalez, who plays the film’s star Miguel. At 12-years-old, this kid has an amazing range of emotion and made Miguel’s journey feel real — he react like a child would, his affect is unsure and gentle. It’s a stunning performance that really holds the whole film together.
If there is one gripe to have, it is with the title. Coco is not about Miguel’s great grandma Coco, its about the whole family. Sure, she becomes the turning point at the end of the film, but she’s so unimportant for so much of the film, it seems an odd choice. That’s not to say that the moment isn’t worth it in the end, but again, odd choice. Some people complained that the plot was too twisty-turny but I disagree. Every story element had its right place and time, and the unraveling of family secrets is anything but clean and simple.
Now, to tackle the elephant in the room. The Frozen short, while technically not a part of Coco, is part of the experience of seeing in theaters (for now, at least). I, knowing of its existence, expected the worst but was honestly kind of charmed by it. It has some fun new songs, it’s well designs, but it does leave you with some weird tonal whiplash. I think it would have been better parred down a bit but I don’t think it’s the travesty people have been making it out to be.
A masterpiece if I ever saw one
Coco is one of the best films of the last year and one of Pixar's strongest. The plot is thrilling, the characters endearing, and it opens up a world of color and culture that is refreshing, and for many, familiar. A must-watch for anyone who loves a good story and a good song.