Directed By: Lee Unkrich
Written By: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach
Coco could not have come at a better time for Pixar. It’s been something of a turbulent passage for what is arguably Hollywood’s most beloved animation studio; off camera, figurehead John Lasseter is away on a six-month sabbatical, his sudden absence spawned from “missteps” pertaining to female co-workers. It’s unfortunate news that’s been only stressed by its coinciding with the departure of Rashida Jones from the still-in-production Toy Story 4; Jones citing a suppressive work culture for minorities as the cause.
Meanwhile, on-camera, the studio has fallen into playing the creative get out of jail card that more and more productions seem to be tending towards in contemporary Hollywood: in the absence of originality, make a sequel. Until now, 4 of Pixar’s last seven features have derived from previous works, with their next two scheduled to follow suit.
It’s enough to shake even the most optimistic moviegoer’s confidence in the animation powerhouse; or perhaps might have been if it weren’t for the welcome interlude supplied by Coco, the latest from Pixar which storms the stage and announces itself as the glowing, poignant return to form we’ve long been awaiting from Hollywood’s most accomplished animators— a timely, effervescent reminder of Pixar’s singular ambition, visual wonder, and proclivity for playing heart strings like the film’s hero would the strings on a guitar.
Coco sees one of Pixar’s most trusted storytellers return to the helm, Lee Unkrich (directing credits on Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 and Finding Nemo) who with great delicacy and attention to detail transports us to contemporary Mexico and journeys inside the world of 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a classic Disney youth whose dreams strain against his familial culture. Miguel’s heart leads him down the same path as that of his Great, Great Grandfather before him, dreaming of a life in music and daring to fill the void long-left by Mexico’s greatest ever musician (and Miguel’s idol) Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
It’s a longing which Miguel is forced to conceal from his disapproving family, a clan of successful shoemakers who long ago denounced all music; a stunning opening prologue in which animated papel picado banners inform why (celebratory streamers which line the Mexican streets during the annual Day of the Dead celebrations, during which Coco is set). It’s a disdain which has been inherited down through generations, beginning with Miguel’s Great, Great Grandmother who was left betrayed by her husband when he abandoned his family in favour of music, and subsists in Miguel’s own parents today.
Family is a thematic hub for Adrian Molina’s and Matthew Aldrich’s screenplay—its significance as an agent in moulding identity, the ways in which we are both obligated to and dependant upon it—notions encapsulated by the frequented site of the Rivera ofrenda, a lavish altar which displays the photos of ancestors passed. Tellingly, the film’s namesake is not of its protagonist, but of Miguel’s Great Grandmother, the weary, seemingly comatose matriarch who slowly develops into the film’s emotional centrepiece, a familial beacon who embodies the full bearing one’s antecedents have on their growth.
Equally rich and full is Coco’s depiction of Mexicana, Unkrich hurling himself into the cultural specifics of his setting with equal parts affection and knowingness. It’s in transporting us to distinct worlds, both familiar and otherwise, in which Coco allows its creators to visually stand tall—their constructions at once beautifully textured and rich in imagination. When Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum and steals his guitar, hoping to use it in the Day of the Dead talent show, our hero is whipped to the Land of the Dead, a dimension in which the macabre and fanciful meet and where the deceased (taking the form of sentient skeletons,) walk undetectably among the living; it’s a land offering its own unique tapestry of soft neons; bustling, Disneyworld inflected cityscapes; and golden, autumnal glows, lending the visual palate a dreamy, ethereal coating.
There are also a lot of rules to this unworldly dimension. The dead can only visit the living as part of the holiday festivities. Miguel, having joined the dead, is not officially one of them, but rather cursed for stealing from the deceased on a day in which the living are supposed to offer gifts to those passed. As such, Miguel must return to the realm of the living before sunset, or be trapped amongst the departed forever, all of which our hero learns with the help of his ancestors, headed by the aforementioned Great, Great Grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach). To make that return trip, Miguel requires a blessing from one of his deceased relatives, but unwilling to subscribe to the conditions laid out by Imelda (namely that of abandoning his musical dream), Miguel instead journeys to find Cruz, believing he and Mexico’s most famous mariachi are connected by more than a shared passion for musical performance, and paving the way for an adventure in strange lands fable that has become something of a Pixar specialty.
There’s more. For the dead to be able to visit the Land of the Living, they must have their photograph displayed on an ofrenda—memories of the dead must be preserved by those who succeed them in the waking world, for if the dead are forgotten, they disappear completely. It’s a caveat which makes for great tension, particularly in the form of Gael Garcia Bernal’s Hector, a down-on-his-luck trickster with a heart of gold who strikes a deal with Miguel—he’ll lead Miguel to Cruz, if Miguel promises to display Hector’s photo and thus preserve his afterlife.
It’s an audacious and fearlessly complicated system delicately mapped out by Unkrich and his team, one that calls to mind Pixar’s most recent masterpiece Inside Out in its structural complexities, knitting together fragments from the revered likes of Studio Ghibli’s Spiritied Away, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland, and imbuing it all with that trademark Pixar penchant for an emotional haymaker.
There are glaring derivations certainly. Seasoned Disney goers will know the ticks in the narrative all too well, Coco borrowing liberally from its own antecedents—from certain twists in characterisation, to the goofy animal sidekick that has accompanied so many Disney heroes on their misadventures. There are thematic familiarities too, the follow your dreams/importance of family theses are as stale as such timeless moral stalwarts can be—a shadow of the sophisticated insights Inside Out dared to dish out.
But what defines Coco’s heart is not its moral intricacy, but the thoughtfulness with which it meets its those morals, honing them with a comprehensiveness reserved for only the most contemplative works. Coco doesn’t merely refer to its well-worn ideas as some cursory dramatic exercise, but it delves into them earnestly, truthfully, fully, Coco championing its notions of family and daring to dream with an invisible tear in its eye, and its heart on its sleeve, wringing from them a level of pathos and affect that’ll leave viewers first flawed, then exhausted, and finally fulfilled. The sure-fire awards contender “Remember Me”, the film’s signature song, packs an especially audacious emotional punch.
It’s the formula for a film that stands comfortably among Pixar’s strongest, even if it doesn’t quite excel to the heights of the canon’s elite (Coco fits snuggly between the likes of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, and the likes of the Toy Story trilogy, Up, and the aforementioned Inside Out)—not only an enthralling animated film, but a tender and insightful adventure saga. If nothing else, it’s a sparkling return to form for its beloved creators.