Cast: (voiced by) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos
Director: Lee Unkrich
Writers: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual by virtue of telling a story that is decidedly not American (or, rather, not of the USA). While some of their films have depicted foreign settings before (Ratatouille is set in Paris and Brave is set in medieval Scotland), their films have nevertheless always been Western in their morals, attitudes, and personalities. Coco, far from coming across like an Americanised take on Latin American culture, feels genuinely non-American in its values and viewpoint. It tells a tale of family and spirituality that draws heavily from Mexican folklore and mythology, the music is fully imbued with flavours of Mexican genres such as mariachi and bolero, and the cast is almost entirely made up of Latin American talent, most of whom were unfamiliar to me (the only caucasian name I noticed in the end-credits was Pixar’s trademark John Ratzenberger). It is also one of Pixar’s finest films; a wonderful, moving ode to the power of stories and memories, the importance of family and legacy, and the ability of music to bring people together.
Our hero is twelve-year-old Miguel who lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia with his shoe-making family. His greatest dream in life is to become a musician just like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, a long-dead but still popular and beloved singer. Music however has been an unspoken word in Miguel’s household ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to become a musician, never to return, an experience that had a profound effect on his daughter Coco, Miguel’s 99-year-old great-grandmother. On the night of Día de Muertos, the annual Day of the Dead where the residents of the town gather together to remember their ancestors and help them on their spiritual journeys to the Land of the Living, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead and there meets his actual ancestors including Mamá Imelda, Coco’s mother. Miguel needs his family’s blessing to return to the Land of the Living but discovers that they will not give it unless he agrees to renounce music. Rejecting their demand, Miguel runs off in search of de la Cruz, whom he suspects is his forgotten great-great-grandfather, with the help of Héctor, a vagrant spirit who needs Miguel’s help to reach the Land of the Living.
What looks like a complicated premise full of complex mechanisms on paper is actually comprehensively simple on screen because that’s how good Pixar is at visual storytelling. When we are taken to the Land of the Dead, we understand perfectly the laws of this universe (the relationship between the living and spiritual world, the system by which the spirits can travel from their plane to the other (and Miguel vice-versa), what happens to Miguel and the spirits during their time in Land of the Dead, etc.) because they are communicated to us in visual terms and tie directly into the emotions and motivations of a given scene. For example, Héctor is desperate to get to the Land of the Living so he can see his one living descendant before he is forgotten. What happens when a spirit is completely forgotten by the living? We find out when we meet a character voiced by Edward James Olmos. The visuals tie strongly to the plot as well with simple images like that of a torn photograph or a glowing petal conveying what would take mountains of dialogue to get across. While the central mystery of the story isn’t difficult to predict, the reveals are satisfying none the less because the film has done such a great job of engaging the viewer with the picture.
What makes Coco a particularly enjoyable watch though is that it’s a story told through song as well as images. This movie isn’t a musical in the same way that Frozen is, but it fully understands the ability music has to set a tone, define a character, and underscore the emotion of a moment and employs it to wonderful effect. When Héctor sings ‘Everyone Knows Juanita’, it marks a moment of unexpected compassion from a character we took to be a low-life hustler. When he and Miguel sing ‘Un Poco Loco’ together, it allows us to appreciate the bond that the pair have formed in their journey. In a climatic scene where the folk song ‘La Llorona’ is performed, the music is used to create both comedy and tension. The original songs are all absolutely delightful and best of all is the Oscar nominated ‘Remember Me’, a song that we hear thrice in three different contexts and that gets more poignant with each rendition. The music’s effectiveness is naturally aided in no small part by the wonderful voice cast, from experienced pros like Gael García Bernal and Alanna Ubach, to astonishing discovery Anthony Gonzalez, who is as much of a revelation in this role as Auli’i Cravalho was in Moana.
It wouldn’t be a Pixar masterpiece of course without some tearjerking moments and Coco doesn’t disappoint. The emotional crux of the story is built around family and the way in which we choose to honour and remember our ancestors. Although the film takes place in a culture that places more spiritual significance into ancestry than Euro-American Western culture, the themes are nevertheless resonant and universal. Any adult or child (of a certain age at least) from any part of the world watching this film can understand the tragedy of an ancestor being forgotten by his or her descendants and can relate to Miguel’s conflict between following his loving family’s wishes and pursuing his greatest passion. Even for those children who are too young to grasp those nuances, there is so much to this film for the whole family to enjoy. The character and set designs are breathtaking and the colours are sublime (I cannot imagine any child beholding the rainbow-coloured albrije and being struck with anything but awe). Coco is thrilling, funny, moving, and positively enchanting on every level and ranks amongst Disney and Pixar’s best.