Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor and Gabriel Iglesias
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 8 Mins
The last time Pixar released two movies in one year, we got Inside Out in the summer of 2015 followed by The Good Dinosaur that November. Inside Out became a blockbuster while Dinosaur left a lot to be desired, a fact reflected in its weak box office performance (The Good Dinosaur is actually considered Pixar’s only genuine miss). So there was naturally some concern over Coco, 2017’s second Pixar release after last summer’s Cars 3.
But while it looks like Pixar has maintained the formula of having one strong release per year (while the second one is weak or disappointing), they flipped the criteria this time around. Simply put, while Cars 3 was just this side of mediocre, Coco is Pixar at its storytelling best.
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a naturally gifted musician who wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol, the famous singer Ernesto De la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But music has been forbidden in Miguel’s family for generations, who choose instead to be cobblers. When Miguel’s grandmother and the family’s official patriarch Abuelita (Renee Victor), decides it’s time for Miguel to join the family business and destroys his guitar, Miguel tearfully decides to take matters into his own hands.
On Dia de La Muertos (The Mexican Day of the Dead), Miguel sets out to “seize his moment” but through a perfect storm of supernatural happenstance, he winds up in the Land of the Dead. There Miguel meets his ancestor Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), the founder of the family business and the one who banned music from their lives, and Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a vagrant remembered by few who is in danger of being forgotten altogether (something called The Second Death by those on the other side). Miguel soon finds himself fleeing his own ancestors while trying to find a way back to the World of the Living before the sun rises and he’s trapped there forever.
Coco starts out a little slow, but once it picks up the pace it is signature Pixar. A combination of excitement, wonder and drama with a few laughs sprinkled in here and there, Coco’s first strength is the quality of the animation and the world building.
Pixar has never been guilty of scrimping in either one of those categories and has a number of impressive feats on its resume. But this may the most daring Pixar’s animators have ever been, and they pull it often spectacularly. They depict the Land of the Dead (at night no less) as a vibrant landscape rich in both colours and contrasts. Each and every colour and design is a perfect compliment to both the story and the theme.
Coco tasked Pixar’s animators with some new challenges as well. The skeletons all resemble their living selves or counterparts, not just in physical appearance but in nuanced body language as well. In case you thought it would be impossible for Coco to tell a story with a bunch of skeletons, Pixar’s artists rose to the challenge. They even pull off some sight gags only possible in a world of animated spirit skeletons. There are also some subtle yet significant physical changes in some of the main characters that the animators execute superbly.
While Coco may not have the laughs or hyperkinetic energy previous Pixar entries do, it dials the heartstring yanking to an 11. Whether it was empathizing with Miguel, whose family’s near violent opposition to his passion threatens to crush his young spirit, or following him along on his journey of discovery in the Land of the Dead (that manages to throw a curve ball or two), Coco doesn’t hesitate to hit you in the feels. I “awe’d” out loud at least once and there were more than a few teary eyes in the theatre by the time the final credits rolled. And while Miguel undergoes an emotional growth to go along with his journey, so does his family on both sides of the ether.
It deals heavily with themes of family, loyalty and faith, examining the cons as well as the pros. And it doesn’t shy away when it comes to the toxicity of hero worship. Coco doesn’t pretend to fight any battles outside of it’s ring, but it doesn’t pull any punches once the bell rings either. Coco may not be Pixar’s funniest offering, but it may be it’s most uplifting, emotional one.
And remember this time last year, when Disney introduced us to a young actress by the name of Auli’i Cravalho? While Moana introduced us to her amazing talent, Coco does the same for Anthony Gonzalez, who voices Miguel. Not only is he a pretty good voice actor, but this kid can sing. He answers the call in a number of the film’s musical numbers, managing to provoke different emotional responses each time.
You may never look at guitars, stray dogs and rose petals the same way ever again. And odds are you may find yourself picking up a stuffed sprit animal or two at the Disney store this Christmas season to stuff someone’s stocking.
In short, Coco is Pixar flexing all its movie making muscles. It’s a skillfully told and beautifully designed fairy tale that far outdoes last June’s Cars 3 and will provide the entire family with genuine holiday entertainment. It’s even prefaced by a cute little Christmas-themed Frozen short (and if your lucky you’ll get a sneak peak at next summer’s The Incredibles 2). And I can think of far worse ways to usher in the Christmas season.