***1/2 out of ****
(for thematic elements)
Released: November 22, 2017
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Alanna Ubach, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos
(The pre-show short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” was not shown prior to this film’s critics screening.)
You’re about to cherish your family photos like never before, and Ancestry.com’s traffic is about to spike.
Coco is another Pixar triumph. Once again, the world’s premiere animation studio finds new ways to extol the ideals of family, not just its values and virtues but – in this deeply personal story – its true significance, even to a spiritual level.
To date, this is also the biggest mainstream American movie to celebrate Mexican history and culture. Infusing music into a rich centuries-old Hispanic tradition, including the most emotional use of a song by a Pixar film since Toy Story 2’s “When She Loved Me”, Coco is a throat-lumping tear-jerking heart-tugger that breaks down walls, opens hearts, and redeems souls.
Going beyond Halloween to expand the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints Day, Día de los Muertos (a.k.a. Day of the Dead) is a three-day Mexican holiday that runs from October 31 to November 2. Families remember and pray for loved ones who have died, create temporary altars to their beloved dead, visit gravesites, and gather to honor them by partaking of their favorite traditional dishes.
On the eve of this annual rite, a boy named Miguel is at odds with his family who, themselves, are at odds with their own history. For generations they’ve been shoemakers, but that business began in reaction to a betrayal, when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his wife and daughter to become a musician. Ever since, music has been forbidden.
So naturally, it’s Miguel’s secret passion. Inspired by singing legend Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel wants to break free from the heritage expected of him.
Well before Coco gets to its conceptual hook of crossing over into the Land of the Dead, this initial conflict of Miguel wanting to pursue his dream – and to have his family’s support – makes for an absorbing experience in its own right, a resonate story with drama and heart that could’ve stood on its own without the eventual otherworldly splendor.
And yet that leap into the supernatural only serves to expand, enrich, and elevate what is so effectively established in the first act. The script, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (who strengthened Toy Story 3 with hard-earned sentiment), is the latest shining example of what The Pixar Braintrust can achieve. This unique creative process is unprecedented in the industry, even superior to corporate cousin Marvel.
Coco is a model of pinpoint narrative perfection; original storytelling that stacks layers, turns, and surprises that would overwhelm most other films, particularly those targeted at the grade school set.
Just when it appears this movie will follow a fairly predictable journey through the Land of the Dead to get back to the Land of the Living, complete with a skeleton sidekick named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) that guides Miguel in hopes of receiving some help of his own, Coco ditches that formula to push the plot, characters, and themes further and further.
The visual invention is equal to the narrative’s. Coco is bursting with color, detail, scope, and spectacle, perhaps best embodied by the Land of the Dead’s multi-hued animal spirit guides. True imagineers, the Pixar team conjures wonders that will elicit audible gasps and wows.
A quasi-musical, Coco’s spirit is fueled by a strong collection of original songs, providing yet another aesthetic texture that amplifies the film’s authentic Hispanic expression. Sincerely rendered in every respect, this never feels like a Hollywood studio pandering to the Latino demographic. It feels of the culture, and from it.
(Hispanic Americans can even use this app to sync their theatrical experience with a Spanish version of the film’s audio.)
Like Pixar’s best work, Coco doesn’t simply affirm family values; it prioritizes them. In a story of a boy chasing dreams, good worthwhile dreams, the themes embrace a moral clarity that says if a choice must ever be made between dreams and family, the choice should always be family.
That’s a courageous marker to lay down in a YOLO culture that often defines happiness and joy by chasing dreams, ambitions and goals, rather than honoring and building roots. Miguel comes to learn that family truly is more important than anything else that this world can possibly offer.
By doing so, kids will be genuinely compelled to learn more about their own family trees. Coco will inspire so many beautiful family conversations, with children excited to learn more about parents and grandparents, heritage and lineage, to look through picture albums and archived records, and to honor, value, and remember the generations that came before. For those who already do, that love will be rekindled even more.
As the film convincingly underscores, whenever we have pictures of our family and loved ones, even those we’ve never met, that means they’re always with us. Literally. And from that tradition of remembrance, we gain identity and draw strength.
Yes, the central parable of Coco is ultimately just the stuff of legend and lore, but it taps into a truth we can only begin to grasp and comprehend.