Full disclaimer: I am a huge Pixar fan. I think even when they fail, their films are more interesting that 90% of the other films released in the same year–and I mean animated and live-action. But when they hit a home run, like they do with Coco, they make classics.
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) comes from a long line of shoe makers who hate music. The hatred dates back to when Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in the music industry, never to return. Ever since then, listening to music is banned by the family and the great-great grandfather’s face was ripped out of the family photo used in the family’s ofrenda–the shrine to their deceased relatives that comes out every year during the Day of the Dead celebration.
The ban on music is unfortunate for Miguel, because he has caught the music bug. Inspired by local hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), he has taught himself to play the guitar by watching old de la Cruz movies in secret. However, he notices that the guitar his great-great grandfather was holding in his family picture was de la Cruz’s trademark guitar, leading Miguel to believe that the singer and his ancestor are one and the same.
When he decides to share this news with his family, his grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys the guitar Miguel was going to use to compete in the town talent contest. Inspired by his idol, Miguel decides to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from his crypt. However, anyone who steals from the dead becomes cursed to join the dead until a dead relative removes the curse. All his dead relatives will only return Miguel back to the land of the living if he agrees to give up music forever. So Miguel goes in search of de la Cruz in the land of the dead so he can send him back without having to give up his music. Unfortunately, he only has until sunrise to receive the blessing before he is trapped in the world of the dead forever. Luckily he meets Hector (Gael García Bernal) who claims to know where de la Cruz is but wants Miguel’s help getting him over to the land of the living.
That might seem like a complex plot for a kids film most of that is just grace notes they add to a rather simple “quest set against a deadline” plot. And if you are savvy, you’d be able to see the third act twists and turns coming a mile away. But those grace notes make Coco special and make you willing to forgive its predictability.
The film immerses you in its worlds through solid filmmaking. Every character is clearly defined with their own personality. It is load with themes such as what is too much to give up to follow your dreams, the joy of music, the love of families. It is a film that makes us laugh, makes us sad, thrills us and scares us. And if you give into the ride, it will take you great places.
A big reason why the film is so immersive is its production design. Computer animated films seems to not get the proper respect for categories like production design and cinematography. I guess that the conventional wisdom is that a computer makes these jobs much easier than they would be in live action films. But Harley Jessup’s production design on this film should be Oscar worthy. From the warm oranges of Miguel’s Mexican village to the neons and stacked buildings of the world of the dead, so much detail is loaded into the sets that they almost become characters too.
Another asset of the film is its score. Michael Giacchino already has a Best Score Oscar for Up. He should get another one here. His score marries perfect with the narrative and provides the emotional backbone for the film. And the original songs, especially “Remember Me” by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are pitch perfect for era Ernesto de la Cruz’s music is set in.
Being that this is a Pixar movie about families, children and death, I feel I should warn you that you will need copious amounts of tissues if you see this movie. Like, a big box store bulk order of them.
Coco might not be the best Pixar movie, but is it a great example of what Pixar does best. It’s a solid film that is visually stunning and tugs at your heartstrings. I highly recommend it.