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 Pixar Loco 

Gael Garcia Bernal
Gael Garcia Bernal
Walt Disney Studios
 104 Minutes
Directed byLee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt 

The best family animated films combine broad humor and slapstick aimed at children with in-jokes and sophisticated humor aimed at adults. The best Pixar movies, like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E take that formula and go one better. Instead of being a 90-minute jokefest, these movies resonate emotionally with old and young audiences by tackling serious themes in a non-pandering matter. After several years spent churning out sequels to their earlier films, Pixar has gone back to what it does best, and the result is Coco, a moving meditation on life, death, and remembrance.


Although the familiar Pixar approach is on display in Coco, the movie differs from other feature film efforts of both Pixar and its parent company Disney in one key respect. Coco is a movie that features Mexican characters, voiced almost exclusively by Mexican and other Latino actors, set in a small Mexican town, and, most importantly, embraces Mexican culture, folklore, and tradition, specifically the celebration of the Day of the Dead (Dios de los Muertos). Despite the somewhat ghoulish name and the holiday’s proximity to Halloween, the holiday is actual a celebration of deceased friends family members, marked by bringing gifts of food and flowers to their gravesides.


Coco centers on Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), whose relatives expect him to join the family shoemaking business. Miguel, however, dreams of becoming a famous singer like the small town’s best known celebrity, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who left his family behind and went to Hollywood where he became a movie star before being killed in an accident. Miguel’s family opposes his wish, and, in fact, doesn’t want Miguel to have anything to do with music at all. He eventually discovers the reason behind their strange attitude when he finds an old family photo showing his great-great-grandfather (with his face torn off) holding Ernesto’s famous guitar. Miguel deduces that Ernesto is actually his great-great-grandfather and breaks into the singer’s mausoleum to steal the guitar so he can enter a competition.


Unfortunately, Miguel’s plans go spectacularly awry, and he finds himself in the Land of the Dead, whose residents can cross over to the land of the living only on that one particular day and revisit their living descendants. Miguel meets and converses with a number of his deceased relatives, including his great-great-grandmother, and a garrulous would-be con artist named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Hector informs Miguel that, to return to the living, he must get a relative to sponsor him. Miguel decides to introduce himself to Ernesto so that his famous ancestor can serve as the sponsor. That proves to be a daunting task since, every year, Ernesto throws a big sunrise bash on the Day of the Dead, marking the end of the festival. But Miguel has help from Hector, who hopes that the boy will be able to figure out a way back so that Hector can also return to the Land of the Living for a visit.


The folklore in Coco may be a bit unfamiliar for non-Latino audiences, but, as usual with Pixar films, the themes involved are universal. The importance of family and treasuring loved ones while they are alive and remembering them after they are gone are the central messages that the movie delivers. And, in addition, Coco looks at these subjects from different points of view. In one scene in the movie, Hector takes Miguel to a part of town where those who are largely forgotten stay. Hector comforts one man as he turns to dust after the last person in the world who remembered him is gone. The film makes the point in a way that will resonate with children that our ancestors for all practical purposes do disappear once they are forgotten.


Of course, Coco isn’t simply a morality tale for youngsters; instead it is a sight and sound delight for young and old alike. As you might expect in a film about a musician, the soundtrack contains a number of Latin-themed numbers, including Ernesto’s theme song, the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated “Remember Me,” which different characters sing in different ways at different times in the movie, each repetition reinforcing the central theme. (See the featurette below for a discussion of the music in Coco.) As far as the visuals are concerned, the Land of the Dead is a sprawling, wonderfully lit fiesta that seems to go forever, a fitting vision of the afterlife and one in keeping with the movie’s message.


The best animation of all is the rendering of the deceased characters. They are basically extremely limber, walking skeletons with heads of hair and eyeballs that are sunk deep in raccoon-like eye sockets. What is amazing is that, in true Pixar form, these creations turn into fully developed characters that display enormous amounts of emotion. Add to that Miguel’s goofy canine sidekick, which crosses over with Miguel and plays a major role in the final plot resolution. Even the human characters are memorable as well, especially Miguel’s elderly great-grandmother, the titular Coco, who dimly remembers her father.


The plot eventually proves rather dark and complicated, at times suggesting a south-of-the-border film noir rather than an exuberant children’s story. The script handles the mystery aspects of the story well, and the necessary lengthy explanations fairly well, but children who have rather brief attention spans and who have already been in the theater for two hours may grow a bit tired and confused. Still, for the adults in the audience who stick with the storyline, the emotional payout at the end is worth it.


Coco is a welcome addition to the Disney/Pixar canon for a number of reasons. In an era in which Pixar is increasingly devoting its efforts towards sequels, the movie is a real original and a highly imaginative one at that. It also contains more music than most Pixar films, a definite plus with younger audiences, and it expands the Disney/Pixar boundaries to encompass a rapidly going demographic that has, frankly been ill served by Disney films since the end of World War II. Moreover, it does so in a way that celebrates the culture rather than simply panders to it or tries to rip it off for a fast buck. Coco is a movie with heart, soul, and sincerity that reminds audiences of what made Pixar films so special in the first place.

In this featurette, the filmmakers discuss the music in Coco.

Read other reviews of Coco: 

Coco (2017) on IMDb