The Celebration Of A Lifetime
Miguel [Gonzalez] is a young boy living in Mexico who stems from a long line of cobblers. Music is forbidden in his family after his great great grandfather ran off to be a musician, abandoning his family. But Miguel has the heart of an artist and is a skilled guitar player. On the Day Of The Dead – the one day of the year the ghosts of ancestors past visit the Earth – Miguel defies his family and steals the guitar of deceased legendary artist Ernesto de la Cruz [Bratt]. In doing so, Miguel is cursed for stealing from the dead and crosses over to the land of the dead. There he meets up with his relatives who agree to send him back providing he gives up on his dream to be a musician. Believing de la Cruz to be his grandfather, Miguel enlists the help of Hector [Bernal], a man who claims to know de la Cruz.
When Coco was first announced I had immediate concerns that it would be little more than a shallow hybrid of The Book Of Life and Corpse Bride, a Diseny-fied cash grab that could monopolise an entire cultural festival in a blatant example of appropriation. I blame this knee-jerk reaction on the flailing calibre of releases that Pixar have put out of late. Thankfully I was not only proved wrong but Coco is better than both films and a genuinely worthy addition to the finest elements of the Pixar catalogue. Other than the surface story, there are so many mature concepts of legacy, identity, raising questions of the importance of shared culture, the prominence of family, the unwavering nature of traditions and feuds and broaching how a child (or adults) can deal with life, happiness and death.
One of the most immediately obvious factors is the lengths the film goes to respect the Mexican culture and influences, it also doesn’t hold its punches or dumb down the content for those unfamiliar with festivals like Dia de los Muertos. In that way, I was extremely impressed by the confidence with which the bilingual dialogue slips effortlessly back-and-forth and that the entire principal cast is of Latino origin. To my mind I wouldn’t say there is a single character who feels poorly executed – but I will come back to that later. In fact, this is the first film with a nine figure budget to contain an all Latino cast; which, when I learned that, caused my heart to sink a little for much like Black Panther, these shouldn’t be milestones/firsts/achievements. How are we still at the stage where there is only one film with this kind of funding but at least change is happening – albeit slowly.
Going back to trailers for a minute, there’s something about the impact of a shot or reveal which is completely lost in a snapshot – hopefully I don’t need to explain or justify why – for animated films this also includes the quality of animation. Sure, we can get a feeling of what to expect but it’s only when you see the characters progressing through a narrative to the degree you forget it’s not real that we feel the impact of the quality of the work – not to the degree of ethnographic animation but you get the idea. In simpler terms, I didn’t appreciate from the promotional material how detailed the animation would be. From the character designs to the often photorealistic lighting, the uncanny valley is sidestepped. We are not trying to convince ourselves that these characters are the same as a photographed human but the meticulous detail lends an exceptional amount of weight to the deception that they are indeed real; for how can something that complex be fake? Mexico is decently represented in a semi-eraless fashion, allowing audiences to believe this could have taken place any time in the last fifty years (even though it’s quite clearly set in the present) and the vibrancy of the afterlife is as wondrous and enchanting as it is overwhelming.
For all Coco’s positives, it’s not exactly perfect but the complaints that follow are so minor that they barely register – but being a review, it would be wrong not to at least highlight them. First off we have the nature of the pleasing but straightforward plot. For kids and those who don’t go to the cinema often, the twist about Miguel’s forebears will be mind-blowing but in truth, the clues are very plainly laid out. I’ll admit, once I pieced it together, I was quite fearful it wouldn’t be the case – after all, the fact de la Cruz is such a national icon, it would be incredibly unlikely that no one would remember he left a family behind. Either way, there is a sizeable amount of convenience at work here but no more than most family releases. Another thing that got to me a little was the particulars of how an individual extends their life in the land of the dead. The only reason Hector agrees to help Miguel is under the agreement that he will take a picture with him (no idea how he has that in the first place but whatever) and place it on an ofrenda. But then he later explains that the picture alone isn’t enough, you need someone who knew them when they were alive to prolong their existence – but if that were true what would be achieved by giving Miguel the picture? Although I also don’t understand how everyone is dressed as they were when they died except for Hector who is in ragged clothes. Granted, we could argue it’s a side-effect of being forgotten but then when his identity is restored and he visits the following year, he’s still dresses shabby. And my final gripe is largely due to the nature of immaturity and low-hanging fruit in “children’s films” with the handful of cringey sophomoric jokes and antics which feel cheap considering the depth of the overall content.
Bright, funny, beautiful and emotional, Coco is one of the strongest Pixar releases in years and feels like a real return to form after Disney animated features have pulled ahead. My only concern now is the sense of déjà vu I had when reviewing Inside Out and the upcoming release schedule which contains very little original content.
19th January 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
While trying to contact de la Cruz at a rehearsal (which he is not attending), Miguel meets Frida Kahlo who explains how her pre-show opener is going to go. Even without understanding or knowing who Kahlo is, the sequence is indicative of creatives with an unlimited budget and is very amusingly presented.
One of Coco’s core strengths is its ability to feel relatable. One of the biggest obstacles films about non English speaking cultures face is that audiences won’t be able to keep up with the glossary of unfamiliar terms or they won’t be able to see themselves in any of the characters. But, much like The Godfather the elements of family and belonging transcend the exclusionary nature of specific heritage and become universal [I honestly can’t believe I’m typing this as, to me, this should be a standard of all storytelling but some people just can’t see past the status quo]. A lot of this comes down to the great performances and quirky characters present that can be found in most families worldwide. Having said that, one of the main developments between rivals (trying to avoid spoilers here), supernatural elements aside, plays out like a Mexican soap opera and that’s pretty marvellous.
“That’s such a sweet sentiment.. at such a bad time”
In A Few Words:
“A stellar, emotional, fantastic feature that outshines anything Pixar has released in the last three years”