Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil
Director: Lee Unkrich
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable. Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.
Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises. They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for. Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.
Now along comes Coco.
I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too. Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University). Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire? And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?
Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history. His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone. Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation. In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange). Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.
When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed. It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break. Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.
The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors. There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family. Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled. I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.
Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding. The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight. There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.
For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display. It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level. Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far. In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage. It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience. Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.