Summary: A young boy must choose between his family and fulfilling his dreams to be a great musician in order to return to the land of the living.
My first love will always be animation. I believe that the art form can do things that can not be achieved with live action. No one has better illustrated this than Pixar Animation. Their films are both crowd-pleasing and critically acclaimed. With all this in mind, you can probably guess I was more than anticipating the release of Pixar’s first musical, Coco. Disney has had a bit of a troubling history when it comes to non-European cultures, so my anticipation was met with a healthy amount of skepticism. It certainly did not help that at one point Disney tried to trademark the phrase Dia de Los Muertos itself. However, with the release of Disney’s Moana, a musical inspired by Polynesian culture, my worries were a bit settled. The film showed me that a studio can go to the proper lengths to not only present the aesthetics but to actively portray these peoples with respect. With Coco, it appears Pixar went to great lengths to accurately portray Mexican Tradition and culture. Even so much as to not only have Mexican acting talent but have Mexicans behind the scenes in pivotal creative roles.
Pixar did its homework and I am blown away by what it has achieved.
Starting with the obvious, the film is visually spectacular and is Pixar’s most visually ambitious film to date. The film has wonderful character and production design that is incredible. The land of the living feels very traditionally Mexican with little visual touches that stick out if you’re familiar with the culture. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see Pixar’s designs applied to the Mexican people, seeing as how so much of western animation is centered on caucasian characters. As for the film’s main set pieces, the Land of the Dead is an explosion of style and color while still grounded in Mexican aesthetic. I especially love how creatively animated and designed the Calavera characters were. From what I hear it was a bit of a challenge to make the dead characters appealing and non-frightening. The color palette and lighting effects are incredibly vibrant and perfectly reflect the Dia de Los Muertos atmosphere. Along with stellar design comes some of the best cinematography I have seen all year. The camera moves are so creative and innovative. The creative team really did their research creating an authentic Mexican setting and characters.
The film’s music is incredible and feels very authentic. The majority of the songs were done by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, while the movie’s pivotal song was done by Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Franco and Molina’s music and lyrics feel very traditionally Mexican. I especially love how the traditional Grito was integrated into the songs and story. My personal favorite of their songs is the very catchy Un Poco Loco. As for the Lopez’s single song, Remember Me, at first, will make you want to dance. However, by the end, you will be unable to listen to it without curling into an emotional ball of sadness. The great music is performed very well by the cast. I have to commend them for finding actors who can actually sing! (Cough Beauty and the Beast remake cough) As for the score, Michael Giacchino delivers a beautiful score as always. For their first musical, Pixar picked an excellent team to deliver.
The voice cast delivers wonderful acting and singing across the board. The film’s lead, Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel, has a damn good singing voice, and portrays his character as both charming and performs the heavier moments of the film with great sincerity. Benjamin Bratt’s Ernesto de la Cruz is comically charming. Alanna Ubach is especially enjoyable as the matriarch of the Rivera family. The rest of the cast is incredibly charming and excellent. However, the greatest performance of the film has to come from Gael García Bernal as Hector. His performance is both incredibly funny, and also carries an emotional depth that elevates the film. I can’t go into much detail why because of spoilers, but the film is worth seeing just for his performance alone.
The story of the film itself on the surface may appear to be your typical “protagonist must choose x or family” narrative, but I feel it provides enough twists to differentiate itself. For one, this is a story about the importance of remembering where we come from and the legacy we leave behind, both crucial aspects of Dia de Los Muertos. It touches on how sometimes our family isn’t always perfect, but can sometimes be redeemed. The amount of ambiguity the characters are presented with and the conclusions they reach are thought-provoking. I appreciate how the holiday isn’t just set dressing, it drives the narrative and the character’s motivations.
If I had to poke some flaws in the film, I would say that some of the twists are somewhat predictable. However, this may just be a me issue. After seeing so many movies, you tend to be able to see the same narrative patterns in different movies. I will say the extent of where some of twists lead did surprise me.
This movie looks and feels very authentically Mexican. So much so, I want to find a Spanish showing as soon as I can. It means the world to me to see my culture presented with such attention to detail and love. No joke, just seeing the beautiful imagery made me glassy eyed. The film’s music and animation are extraordinary, and both are complemented with an excellent voice cast and story. This is one of the most beautiful films of the year, and you should go see it while you still can!