Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
At 19 feature films and still rising, PIXAR has always and will continue to be, the main innovator when it comes to animation. And this - their latest opus, “Coco,” a beautifully rich homage to Mexican culture - might just be their most human film to date. Which is ironic considering most of the characters in the film aren’t actually living.
Taking center focus on 12 year old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring musician who even goes as far to teach himself how to play the guitar, “Coco” is a fresh dose of Pixar magic, putting sole focus on the characters, without feeling bloated and cheap. Young Miguel has a deep passion for the art of musicality, so it’s unfortunate that he comes from a bloodline that despises it. He often sneaks away to a self constructed hideout and watches old archival footage of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), an icon among Miguel’s small village, and a legend known for being the best musician ever.
All these thoughts start to become more prevalent as Día De Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is fast approaching, a Mexican tradition that allows those from the living to communicate with loved ones who’ve passed on to the afterlife. This is where PIXAR’s creativity is allowed to shine through, keeping for a painstakingly authentic representation of this culture, that allows some of their most vibrant colors to shine through. As the movie trots along Miguel, after attempting to snag Cruz’s guitar from inside his shrine so he can compete in a talent show competition, get’s transported to the other side. A magical wonderland that is the “Land of the Dead.” A place where skeletons (who don’t look too far removed from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,”) walk freely. And where one day every year a portal opens, allowing those who are dead to visit their loved ones and collect their offerings.
That’s when the magic of “Coco,” which gets its title from Miguel's great grandmother who they call “Mama Coco,” starts to heat up. Miguel just wants to detail how important music is and believes he has a long lost relative in Cruz, who possess the key to sending Miguel back to the land of the living; because if he doesn’t make it before sunrise, he becomes stuck in skeleton purgatory forever. But in order to get to Cruz, he needs help in locating him first and thus we get a tag along chaperone in the form of a street peddler named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). The two make for a great pair, and together they roam the world and thankfully, we are granted to a visual palette of enticing backgrounds, and locations as we follow them on the journey.
It might be quite a stretch for this to make sense to the young ones, and they may even be turned off by the appearance of the skeletons, but it tackles serious subjects and the importance of diversity. In our current political climate, “Coco” speaks volumes and it’s sort of rebellious, which makes it that much better. In terms of comparisons, it takes me back to “Monsters Inc” and what those animators did for it’s main location, and how the Land of the Dead feels similar in it's presentation of a metropolis like arch, except this location is equipped with rainbow colored spirit animals lurking at every corner; including Miguel’s, whose dog named Donte, makes for a trusty sidekick in the same way Olaf was in “Frozen,” (who, by the way, has his own twenty minute short attached to this movie that’s a blast.)
Even with the convolution of the characters or subplots, “Coco” still resonates beyond a reasonable doubt because of it’s authenticity. It’s a welcome return for PIXAR, as they've hit a creative roadblock as of late, with movies like “The Good Dinosaur” and, most recently, “Cars 3.” Those movies were fine, but they didn’t push any boundaries or dared to engulf us with characters that were fun to be around.
The voice work in “Coco” is all steady and top notch, with newcomer Gonzales providing the correct pitch for Miguel with Barcena taking aim at Hector, who, from a character standpoint, really takes time to grow on you. At first you might be hesitant, but he’s really just a big softy. And obviously some kudos is in order for director Lee Unkrich (who broke your hearts with “Toy Story 3”) and co-director Adrian Molina for envisioning such a landscape. As well as the thousand upon thousands of artists that contributed to the final look of “Coco.”
But, as Pixar has proven time and again, they create the best pictures through a kaleidoscope like lens that seems natural to the human eye. It feels like we’re walking on air. “Coco” is easily the best animated film of the year, and one that deserves the sobs it surely will inspire. It’s especially apparent for children to understand that death is very much existent in our life, but also knowing in times of great heartache and grief, your family will always be there to guide you. Hardly original I know, but “Coco” has a resounding message that even the youngsters can follow: that being true to your family is valued, but staying honest to yourself and your aspirations is priceless. A-