Coco review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Coco has all the elements of a Pixar masterpiece. The animation is dazzling and ambitious, pushing the artists and animators to deliver on something never seen before in computer animation. The world is something else entirely, existing outside of the norm that many animated films would retreat towards. But the critical ingredient lies in crafting a compelling and mature tale that doesn’t hold back on the drama or emotion for being a family film. And when you have a movie about death, Pixar can’t afford to pull back or talk down their audience, even for a movie based on Mexican folklore.
Miguel Rivera is a boy that aspires to be a singing sensation like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary musician and actor. But his family of the Riveras won’t have any talk of music in their household after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue a career as a musician. The family favors the shoe business to keep them together for generations, but Miguel finds no soul in the soles. He’d much rather pick up a guitar and strum a passionate melody. Deciding to follow his dreams, Miguel runs off to the Day of the Dead talent show and swipes the guitar of de la Cruz.
Now things get a little more complicated. The stealing of a guitar from a crypt places a curse on Miguel, sending him to the Land of the Dead where all spirits congregate as skeletons. The only way to get back to the Land of the Living is to receive the blessing of his ancestors. This shouldn’t be a problem since there are plenty of dead relatives to help him back. They’ll do it, but only if he agrees to renounce his dreams for music. Disagreeing with them, Miguel decides to seek out de la Cruz, as he believes the man may be his great-great-grandfather.
That’s a lot of lineage and rules to unload within the first act, including the importance of being remembered in the Land of the Living and the harsh punishment for being forgotten in the Land of the Dead. This establishes why it’s so crucial that vagabond spirit Hector (Gael García Bernal) will help Miguel so long as the living boy will help him. It’s kinda wordy, but it is necessary for building a strong foundation for this dazzling world and entertaining adventure. Compare that to the chaos of The Book of Life, another animated film about the Land of the Dead that was far too frenetic to understand its vibrancy. Coco doesn’t need to try so hard to be entertaining. It’s a well-thought-out world to house a capable and emotional adventure of family, music, and murder.
Wait, murder!? Does that sound like a Pixar film? For a movie about death, yeah, it does. Some of Pixar’s best movies are the ones that are formed from a mature and honest aspect, as opposed to making everything cute, cuddly and PG enough for that PG rating. There’s no skating around the shocking reveal of betrayal and death, even as ridiculous as Ernesto’s death is for having been crushed to death by a giant bell. Even more hilarious for the spirits is Hector’s death, thought to be food poisoning. The real story is far darker.
And then there are the tears. Pixar has been doing a remarkable job at making parents cry from the faith in your child of Finding Nemo to the lost innocence in Inside Out. Coco may be their biggest offender in this department. Blindsided, a sweet and somber song of a father and daughter will cause a flood in the face for any parent. Fair warning for parents: keep the tissues ready somewhere around the end of the second act.
Ultimately, Coco succeeds at being a family film that’s actually about family and learning to appreciate your heritage, warts and all. The music is a treat for the ears, the decadently lit Land of the Dead is mesmerizing, and the plot has just enough twists and turns to keep any adult interested. Pixar has already shown how expertly they can assemble an animated film that touches on broader themes with Inside Out. Now they’re just showing off with how much further they can go.