I cried throughout most of the last half hour of Pixar’s Coco. Everything else is moot. Coco worked for me completely and utterly. I adored every sumptuous dazzling frame.
Sadly a review must contain something more than I loved it and it made me cry. The story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) being torn between honoring his family’s generational tradition of being cobblers to instead follow his heart and dreams of being a singer is hardly a new one. It’s the well-worn hero’s journey of a young boy who goes on a magical adventure only to discover the real answer lay within him all along.
One of the dangers of valuing originality over solid storytelling is sometimes you’ll punish a movie for doing something you’ve seen a thousand times; even though it does it flawlessly. I am always excited when I can tell where the story is going and yet I am still excited and on the edge of my seat. Sometimes the story being told well and joyously trumps all else. As much as I’ve harped on the predictability of the story, I would be lying if it didn’t throw a curve ball I didn’t see coming. True to its Mexican roots Coco swerves into a dark but wonderfully melodramatic telenovela territory; ratcheting up the drama but never overwhelming the story.
Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s decision to set the story in Mexico is a stroke of genius that borderlines on sheer artistic bravery. Genius, because it allows a culture to be explored using a story we are familiar and comfortable. It allows the people it’s portraying to see themselves as part of something recognizable. Brave because if Coco is anything, it is unabashedly proud of its Mexican heritage.
The animation of Coco stems from the folklore of Mexican culture while also taking from recognizable landmarks as well. When Miguel flees from his great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) from the Family Reunification Center in the afterlife, I smiled. The floor plan is clearly modeled after the Bradley building with its Escher like stairways and narrow halls. The afterlife is a symphony of rich and vibrant colors. The bridge from the living to the land of the dead is a gorgeous bright orange petal colored construction whose beauty stems from its simplicity.
Miguel flees from Imelda because in order to get back to the land of the living he must have the blessing of a family member. Imelda, however, hates music. His whole family does after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather deserted the family to become a famous singer. Left on her own with a daughter, Coco, to raise Imelda taught herself the art of cobbling. She makes Miguel promise to give music up forever as a condition for his return. Miguel can not go against his own grain and decides to hunt down his great-great-grandfather, forgotten by his family, but remembered by all of Mexico, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
The notion of one sacrificing a dream in order to take care of family is a surprisingly grounded view in a movie which takes place largely in the afterlife. Dreams are well and good, but sometimes we are forced to follow different paths to better care for the ones we loved. Finding a valid argument against rebelling against everything to achieve your heart’s desire is rare, even in an adult film, much less a children’s animated movie.
Coco deals with death straight on and doesn’t sugar coat the harshness and finality of it. The afterlife is not eternal. Once you are forgotten you vanish forever. But despite all this Coco shows kids that death is a natural part of life. This adds stakes, real stakes, both for Miguel and for his newfound friend and guide, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Pixar movies have long had music in them, but Coco might be the first musical that I’m aware of. The Disney influence is strong, but the musicality makes sense and feels organic to the story. The songs don’t feel wedged in but flow naturally throughout Coco. “Remember Me” and “La Llorona” are the standouts. “La Llorona” being where the tears started to fall.
For the first time in long while I watched a kid’s animated film and never once felt overcome with any cynicism. Among all the pageantry throughout Coco, there wasn’t one blatantly hyper-marketed plush toy anywhere to be found. I’m not saying they won’t sell toys and merchandise off of Coco. Disney will always find a way to merchandise their movies, but there’s no naked attempt to create a character purely for the purpose of selling toys.
Coco is a warm blanket of a movie. It glides along hitting beats and notes we are accustomed to but starring people who are normally kept to the margins. It’s a deeply affirming thing to see yourself on screen as the hero. Never underestimate the importance of simply being seen.
It may not be the most groundbreaking Pixar movie or even the most technically daring. But Coco is still a wonderfully charming story of a young boy and his family. If it seems odd that I spent so little time talking about the actual story or coming up with anything bad to say, I’m sorry.
Movies like Coco are a pain to review. What can I say? I was completely charmed. I have nothing bad to say because there’s nothing bad to talk about. Coco is so sincere and earnest that to rant and rave about how I’ve seen it all before seems petty. Besides it would be a lie. I’ve seen the story, but I’ve never seen it told quite so perfectly and lovely.