Pixar’s Coco has had a heck of an uphill battle public image-wise to get to the silver screen. The film has had the longest development period for a project at Pixar lasting about six years. At an early point, when the film was named after the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos, Disney tried to trademark the phrase causing backlash and the title was changed. Many also balked at the idea that so many white people were going to be making a film appropriating their culture, Pixar hired more Latinos as consultants (including one cartoonist who had previously been vocally decrying the film’s production) some of the songwriters, behind the scenes people and the entire cast, save for John Ratzenberger in his usual cameo. The internet exploded as parallels to another animated film about Día de Los Muertos, The Book of Life were drawn and many considered it a “rip off”, even after Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez voiced his support for Coco.
Finally, many cast doubt on the film’s quality when Disney decided to forgo the usual Pixar short and replace it with the vastly more marketable 21 minute Olaf’s Frozen Adventure holiday special originally meant to air on ABC. Luckily, the battle is almost over. Mistakes have been rectified and the doubters will be proven wrong as Pixar releases it’s the best film since Toy Story 3.
Directed by Toy Story 3‘s Lee Unkrich and co-directed by Adrian Molina, Coco tells the story of how when 12-year-old Miguel’s (Anthony Gonzalez) great-grandmother, Coco was a little girl, her father, a musician left to go on tour and never returned. Coco’s mother (Alanna Ubach) banned music for generations and started a family business of shoemaking. Miguel, however, had been collecting musical knickknacks for years and dreams of being a great musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Disobeying his family’s wishes, Miguel attempts to join in a Día de Los Muertos Talent Show but accidentally finds himself transported in the Land of the Dead where he meets his skeleton ancestors and sets off on a journey to find his way back with the desperate con man Héctor (Gael García Bernal) before sunrise when neither would able to get back again.
To say ways this film works on so many levels at this time, in particular, may be considered spoilers but many of the themes of the film resonate more now they possibly could have while the film was in production.
The production design is gorgeous and breath-taking is spectacular in 3D. Most of The Land of the Dead is an amazing mix of classic Mexican architecture with more popping colour than I’ve seen in a film in years by way of Utopian take on Blade Runner. This, of course, is genius as the Land of the Dead would surely have more people than we would know what to do with but the skyscraping buildings of their world have such a delightful sense of fun rather than sameness or terror that over populated areas can often be portrayed as. Ernesto de la Cruz’s mansion is also an indulgent dream.
While Pixar doesn’t like to market Coco as a “musical” in the traditional sense, the film is absolutely and appropriately Pixar’s most musical film ever, including 8 songs and reprises! Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez (both of Frozen fame and he of Avenue Q & The Book of Mormon) give the film it’s most catchy, touching and prevalent song, Remember Me, the rest were composed by Germaine Franco and co-director and co-screenwriter Adrian Molina most of which are either completely in Spanish or at least in portion.
The acting is superior with newcomer Anthony Gonzalez selling Miguel as the child he is. Bull-headed, dorky, funny, spunky, scared, brave and everything in between. Bratt is unrecognizable as de la Cruz and relishes the part. Strangely, Bratt is credited on the soundtrack as singer for only one of his songs while doubled by singer Antonio Sol on other tracks. This is surprising as based on the one credited to him, Bratt was already one of the best singers on the cast list. Always a favourite, Bernal gives Héctor the right mixture of sleaze and charm and oodles of heart while Ubach plays Mamá Imelda embodies such motherly loving stubbornness it’s easy to forget she is a skeleton.
Coco never leans too heavily in the comedy obstructing the story like some modern animation but is quite funny when it allows itself to be. While Frida Kahlo’s status as a supporting character may baffle children the film walks the line well between different types of humour for the different audience types with. Dante the street dog who was prominently featured in the marketing is used to great effect.
While I’d never say why you might need them, remember this is a Pixar film, however, and one will likely need to bring tissues for. Pixar proves time and time again that they can take basic, age-old themes of family, tradition and follow one’s dreams and make a masterpiece with them. Coco is no different. I adore this film as much as this film adores Mexican culture. It is a delight from start to finish that you will want to revisit instantly… and maybe look up where the nearest Mariachi band is playing.
Note: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was not included in this pre-screening and thus was not included in this review.