Coco, Pixar’s latest animated offering, has been a stunning success across the board and frankly I’m still astounded it was ever made at all. This is a children’s film about death, exploring subjects like dementia and legacy. The setting is a small town in Mexico, with all the political baggage that carries, and, highly unusual for Pixar, it even contains a number of very sweet musical numbers. Whoever decided that this should be one of the company’s increasingly limited number of original films took a risk. And that risk has more than paid off.
The film follows twelve year old Miguel, played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, on a mission to follow in the footsteps of his idol, world renowned musician Ernesto de la Cruz. Standing firmly in the way of our plucky protagonist’s dreams is his family, a clan of vehemently anti-music shoemakers. If this all sounds a little by-the-numbers so far, Coco adds enough of its own unique verve to the classic coming of age story that it rarely feels derivative. Miguel’s attempt to stand up to his family leads to him being thrown into the Land of the Dead where he must find his way home before sunset or be stuck there for good. And here the story really finds its feet.
A lot of Coco’s refreshingly original zeal is the gloriously Mexican setting. Director Lee Unkrich has spoken at length at how careful the filmmakers were to respect the cultural significance of Día de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday around which the film is centred. Research alone took years, cultural consultants were brought on board far earlier than is usual for a Pixar production and the entirely Latino cast was encouraged to embellish the script with any additions that seemed suited to their characters. Perhaps in a more culturally aware world this wouldn’t be something to praise, but while Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Ghost in the Shell is still fresh in our memories, Coco’s earnest commitment to responsibly portraying its subject is a breath of fresh air.
This authenticity really shines through in the animation. As you might expect from a Pixar production, Miguel’s hometown is painstakingly detailed and beautifully rendered, but what really sticks out is the film’s brilliantly inventive take on the Land of the Dead. Here the consistently gorgeous animation can really shine – it’s a world bustling with brightly dressed undead skeletons, filled with an eye-watering array of neon colours, fantastical structures, and a surprising depth of world-building.
All this however would mean very little without Coco’s rock solid emotional core. Despite the highly entertaining trappings, this is, at its heart, a story about family and understanding. The Land of the Dead is not a world of fear and jump-scares but an irreverent and loving depiction of those we have lost. The film muses on forgiveness and what really matters at the end of our lives. Most memorably though, Coco takes full advantage of its ostensibly gloomy subject matter to produce an ending that is indulgently tear-jerking. I haven’t cried so much in a cinema since I first watched the opening montage in Up. Seriously, if you’re just looking for some emotional catharsis this is definitely one to watch.
Of course, Coco is by no means a perfect film. Someone looking for plot holes will no doubt find a fair number and the whole story remains very much within the outline of its coming-of-age genre: the plot twists are fairly predictable and our requisite comic relief animal side-kick, this time a street dog named Dante, cuts a familiar figure. Perhaps Coco won’t be counted among Pixar’s masterpieces but it certainly marks a witty and engaging return to form for a company that seems to be increasingly relying on sequels such as Cars 3, Toy Story 4 and Finding Dory to bring in the big bucks.