With Coco, Pixar proves that they are still the dominant animated storytellers in the business. Hidden underneath a cute, lively film is a story about setting your own path in a world that appears to be rooting against you. Just like Ernesto de la Cruz, an Elvis-like figure who is considered the greatest musician in the world, always says, “seize your moment,” because no one is going to hand you your dreams.
At its core, Coco is a story about finding yourself and the importance of family. To get that message across, Pixar takes audiences on a crazy, energetic journey that explores Mexican heritage and Dia de los Muertos. This is a story that could only be told on Dia de los Muertos as Miguel finds himself stuck in the land of the dead interacting with past generations of his family. While the plot follows a basic structure of “stop the curse before sunrise,” Coco is certainly a case where the journey is just as powerful as the conclusion. Interlaced between comedic moments is a truly heartfelt tale that proves Pixar is still the king at mixing laughs and heart.
Audiences initially might be captivated by the vibrant settings, but it’s the characters that bring Coco to life. Against the wishes of his family, Miguel dreams about playing music and emulating his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, the best musician of all time. A hopeful child, Miguel’s determination to make his dreams a reality pushes the whole story forward. He won’t be satisfied unless he can play music, but his family, who he thinks “may be the only family in Mexico who doesn’t like music,” want to indoctrinate him into the family cobbler business. Each member of his family is entertaining and plays a role in discouraging him from pursuing his dreams, but his abuelita may be the most enjoyable. A woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and just wants to see her grandson live a safe life, she has no problem whipping out the chancla and doling out a whooping when the time calls for it. The Land of the Dead is jam-packed full of unique individuals, and a few famous historical faces, who give the movie a dynamic feeling. Guided by Hector, a sleazy trickster with his own motivations to help the stranded child, Miguel has to interact with all types of people to return home.
Part of what made the characters so lively were the solid voice performances behind each one of them. Anthony Gonzalez, the young performer who brought Miguel to life, brings a sense of excitement to the character that translates throughout the movie. Whether Miguel is singing or running away from an alebrije, Gonzalez, who only made his acting debut back in 2013, infuses each moment with a raw, emotional quality that makes his character easy to empathize with and root for. Joining Gonzalez was Gael Garcia Bernal, the legendary actor from projects like Mozart in the Jungle and Y Tu Mamá También, who voiced Hector, and Benjamin Bratt, who plays Ernesto de la Cruz.
Coco is an exploration of the power of music. As a result of that, the music is a character in itself. The various types of source music used in Santa Cecilia, ranging from mariachi to banda, give the plazas an authentic, lively feel that highlight their power to bring communities together. Miguel dreams of connecting to those around him through music, something that’s apparent in the line “music is my language, the world is my familia.” The two original songs “Remember Me” and “Poco Loco” are both extremely catchy and play key parts in the film. Watching Miguel play these songs is about more than just seeing a boy emulate his hero — it’s a journey that slowly transforms a nervous boy into a man who is proud of his abilities.
From a technical standpoint, this might be Pixar’s most impressive film yet. The warm tan and orange color palettes featured in Santa Cecilia are a sharp contrast compared to the cool blues used in the land of the dead, giving each setting a unique feel. Everything from the paint chipping off the market’s walls to the grooves on an individual skeleton’s face were expertly textured and give each world a lived in quality. Not only is the Land of the Dead well textured, but it is also extremely well lit. Every window in the Land of the Dead’s sprawling towers has a candle that casts shadows and adds a new layer of depth to the massive world. It’s little things like dense fog and moving trolleys in the background of city shots that make the world pop and increase the sense of scale.
While its an extremely well made movie I have no doubt will make a killing at the box office, I sincerely hope it doesn’t receive a sequel. The Land of the Dead may be one of Pixar’s most vibrant settings and the world is ripe with story potential, but this feels like a beautiful self-contained story that doesn’t need expansion. Teaching young audiences about the circle of life and the importance of establishing their own path, Coco maintains its comedic edge throughout and never seems over-the-top during its most emotional moments. Do yourself a favor and take your kids, friends or anyone willing to sit next to you for an hour and forty nine minutes to see this one over the Thanksgiving break.