Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Coco is funny, heartbreaking, thrilling, beautiful, and also, without hyperbole, honestly and truly and hand-on-heart, one of the Great Films to come from Pixar. From the opening Disney fanfare re-arranged and played mariachi style, thru the opening narration telling the history of "the only family in Mexico to hate music", told through animated papel picados, to the closing credits Coco is top shelf Pixar. Coco is a film that works on every single level, it is art that will entertain everyone, kids and adults. And, on top of everything great that can be said about Coco, it is among the great film tributes to the people and the culture of Mexico.
It's been twenty two years since Toy Story, twenty two years of ups and downs, but really, more ups than downs. That the same studio that has brought us the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Inside Out, and Finding Dory can still release something as mind-meltingly good as Coco is a testament to the vision and direction and the people of Pixar. They may be a complex bunch, and they may have their very public issues, but when it comes to producing great art they are peerless. Working with familiar Pixar themes of memory and aging, seen in Finding Dory and Inside Out and Up, Coco adds something new to the mix, death. Where Inside Out hides behind its bright colours and non-stop action a lesson for kids about their emotions and the changes brought about by aging and the randomness of the universe, Coco hides behind its music and spectacle a lesson about death. And personally, I can't think of a better way to learn about death than from Coco.
The worlds that are created in Coco are among Pixar's greatest achievements. There is the Rivera family compound, where the shoes are made and the music is never, ever allowed. It is where young Miguel hides his homemade guitar and secretly plays along to videotapes of his hero Ernesto De la Cruz, the greatest musician ever. Miguel's extended family includes his parents, various aunts and uncles and cousins, his great grandmother and his grandmother, who rules over the family with a fierce love. The town seems so real, so vibrant with its mariachi square, cemetery, sounds and hustle. It's all in the details. Dante, the Xolo dog who follows Miguel. The statue of Ernesto de la Cruz and the bundles of tourists following their guide as they learn the importance of various historic spots, the grandmother who attacks with her shoe. The ofrenda with photographs of relatives that have passed over and their favourite food and the shoe they specialized in. The cempasuchil petals that guide the dead to the ofrenda. The papel picados that hang over the streets. The vibrance of the Dia de Muertos, the lighting of scenes changing with the colour of fireworks. Miguel's guitar with shoe nails for frets. Even the way a guitar is played is created with a loving attention to detail, when a C chord is strummed it is a C chord that rings out, the chord shape, the strum, the way the strings come alive - they're all perfect.
And then there is the Land of the Dead… The layers of architecture, the towering buildings stretching, reaching to the sky built on a foundation of Aztec ruins. Each calavera, each skull, in the Land of the Dead is not just individually crafted, much like a face, but they are also individually decorated, subtly and exquisitely and beautifully. The animation of the skeletons is unlike anything I've ever seen before. I don't know how they solved the problem of non-muscular movement, but the folks at Pixar did it and it is something to watch. The bridges to the Land of the Dead are carpeted thick with cempasuchil petals, each petal moving separately. There is so much to absorb, so much eye-candy, so much for the brain to take in it will take multiple revisits to Coco to really see everything that the filmmakers have created. And I haven't gotten to the alebrijes, the day-glo animals who behave like guides for the dead. Chimera-like, with wings and talons and hints of frog, of rabbit, of armadillos, of porcupines, some are mammal, some are insect, others are harder to define, each one is unique. And their colours, oh, my, their colours.
With its crowds and alebrijes, with is cobblestones and cable cars, Coco's Land of the Dead stands with any of Pixar's imaginary worlds, be it WALL-E's trash covered Earth or the inside of Riley's head in Inside Out or Monsters, Inc's Monstropolis or Cars' post-apocalyptic nightmare. Just watching Coco as an attempt at creating a fully realized imaginary world it is a success. But then there's the realistic camera work, for example a stunning over the shoulder shot of Miguel pushing his way through a crowd, the bodies slightly jostling the camera. And the music. I think I heard at least three Oscar contenders for Song of the Year. My favourite? Why, thanks for asking. I love Un Poco Loco. In fact, I'm listening to it right now, at this very moment. Love that song.
And then there is the story… Coco is the story of Miguel Rivera, a twelve year old who yearns to be a musician. Stuff happens and he finds himself, and Dante the Xolo dog, in the Land of the Dead, where he discovers his dead family hates music as much as his living family. Needing his family's blessing to return to the living but unwilling to accept the conditions they are placing on it, he goes off in search of Ernesto De la Cruz, whom he believes to be his great great grandfather. Along the way he gets help from Hector and discovers hard truths about the Land of the Dead. Like, that the "economy" is based on the living's memories of the dead. And that when the living forget about the dead, the dead pass away. Anyway, stuff happens and it really does work and everything feels organic and nothing feels forced.
There's some weirdness in Coco. Through the film we snippets of Ernesto De la Cruz' movies and in one of them he plays a flying priest. And Frida Kahlo, icon of Mexican art, is the centrepiece of many of Coco's weirdest moments and oddest humour. Which all works for those that know who she was and those that don't. The unibrow jokes alone are priceless. Tasteful and priceless.
Every performance in Coco is note perfect, from 12 year old Anthony Gonzalez to more recognizable names like Benjamin Bratt as the walking ego that is Ernesto De la Cruz or Natalia Corova-Buckley as Frida or Gael Garcia Bernal as Hector.
And I'm going to get real honest here - there's gonna be some crying, there's going to be some tears. If aliens ever land on this planet and make any of us explain our pop culture, Pixar will be defined as the folks that make amazing animated films for kids that make adults cry. I don't think I've ever seen a storyline sneak up on me this subtly before but by the time I pieced together what was going on I was ugly crying. Yep. It happened. I'm not proud. Anyway, gather up some of your hard earned dollars and see Coco on the biggest screen you can find. Your ancestors will thank you.