Pixar goes to another part of the world to tell a story about legacy in its newest computer-animated story.
RATING: ★★★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
Between the recent news of their talks with 21st Century Fox about acquiring most of their assets and IPs and their inconsistent output earlier this year with the disappointing Spider-Man: Homecoming and their artificial, emotionally vapid live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, it’s been easy to feel cynical going into a film produced by the Walt Disney Corporation. However, of all the properties owned by the Mouse Ears, the one that has been the most consistent over the years has been Pixar, the company that revolutionized animation and cinema as we know it through their contributions to computer animation. They burst onto the scene twenty-two years ago with the first Toy Story and have put out great work year after year thanks to gorgeous animation, a sense of humor that clicks with audiences of all ages, and an emotional theme at its center that gives adults something to chew on. Their newest film, Coco, does all that and more by dedicating itself to the authenticity of the foreign culture where their latest story takes place.
Coco takes place on Dia de Muertos (the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture) in a fictional village in Mexico, where child Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming a musician, idolizing a legendary Hispanic singer-songwriter and movie star named Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) despite his family’s disapproval because his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to become a famous musician. Rather than see the spirits of his deceased ancestors on their holiday tradition, Miguel searches for a guitar to use for a talent show and breaks into the tomb of De La Cruz to use his, upon discovering he is an ancestor of his family. One strum of the guitar not only transports Miguel from the real world to the Land of the Dead, a world in the afterlife that the spirits of the deceased call home, but also transforms him into a ghost. From there, Miguel sets out to return home before sunrise or risk becoming a ghost forever, but not before finding De La Cruz in hopes of getting his blessing to become a musician. Meanwhile, Miguel is on the run from the spirits of his ancestors who want him to renounce music, and on the way, meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a suspicious but eccentric spirit who implores him to put up his picture in the Land of the Living so his last living relative won’t forget him.
The story does feel a little familiar to Toy Story 2 at times in the sense that it covers the theme of being remembered, but in Coco, the theme is told from a fresh perspective that’s rooted in authenticity to the Mexican culture. The film bursts with dedication to an accurate portrayal of said civilization in almost every aspect of how its production, starting with a vibrant visual style that’s bursting with color, especially when animal spirit guides come into play coated in a collage of colors and patterns. It’s also worth noting that the ghosts in Coco are portrayed as skeletons, but they’re not designed in a terrifying manner, although to watch the skin on Miguel’s body slowly disappear from scene to scene is effective with its subtlety. Coco also stays true to the Mexican culture through its music. The songs and score convey an infectious energy and are reminiscent of the mariachi, son jarocho and bolero ranchero genres while hitting the right emotional beats as the characters express the respective feelings of joy, longing and despair through music; in particular, the song, “Remember Me” comes back the most with a different emotion behind it each time.
It’s so prominent because the message of the song ties into the main themes at the emotional center of Coco, those being the power of memory, legacy and the importance of family. In a move of clever world building, the society of the Land of the Dead is set up to where the spirit’s class status and existence is contingent by how often they’re remembered by relatives and friends in the Land of the Living. While Hector lives in a shanty hut with other spirits whose families have forgotten them, Ernesto De La Cruz resides in the Land of the Dead inside a lavish mansion swarming with his adoring fans. Through this backdrop, Miguel’s adventure is a wonder to watch as the emotional beats strike the right chords (pun intended) and he grows to remember why he wants to pursue music in the first place, as well as learn the main lessons at the heart of Coco, which involve the importance of how you are remembered, how fragile it can become, and why family is so important in Mexican culture because ultimately, your family is your legacy. They’re taught with every place Miguel visits in the Land of the Dead, and with every dramatic turn the story takes without ever feeling sugarcoated or preachy.
It’s always tough to rank Pixar films every time a new one comes out, but Coco is certainly worth placing in the upper tier of their filmography thanks to the passion for the Mexican culture that’s on display, as well as the traditional beats of any Pixar production: it has gorgeous visuals, catchy music, a sense of humor that appeals to both kids and adults, and an emotional center that tugs on the heartstrings while staying organic to the themes of the film. But despite the familiarity of its story, audiences of all ages can come away entertained, having learned something new about a foreign culture, and pondering how they would want to be remembered. It’s that kind of staying power that will benefit Coco in the long run this holiday season.