Coco Review: Pixar Strums a Tune of Color, Culture, and Complex Emotion

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At the end of the previous decade, the very Pixar name had become synonymous with “masterpiece.” But after 2010’s Toy Story 3, the Disney off-shoot’s creative return rates started to diminish. Sure, instant-classic Inside Out was released in 2015 (which The Filtered Lens named the best movie of that year), but first we had to sit through Cars 2 and Monsters University. A couple more since ranging from quite good (Finding Dory) to forgettable (The Good Dinosaur) having seemingly established Pixar’s new norm: one out of every four or five films will join their great pantheon of classics. Luckily for audiences this Thanksgiving, Coco is one of those great films, even if it’s not a masterpiece at the caliber of a Wall-E or Up.

Taking the basic premise of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away, the film injects it with all the culture, color, mystery, and, most naturally to itself, music of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. We follow the young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a spirited boy in a small Mexican village who’s a known descendant of one of the country’s most prolific musicians, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But instead of embracing their musical history, Miguel’s family has shunned music out of their lives for generations after Ernesto walked out on his late great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach). The family law, most heavily enforced by Miguel’s traditional grandmother Abuelita Elena (Renee Victor), has led them to be shoemakers, but Miguel has history on his mind and music in his heart. The film’s first masterful sequence occurs when the boy goes to his hideaway within the family home where he studies Ernesto’s every move through video, and closes his eyes and strums his guitar. It’s small, but it establishes everything the film is about in an emotionally rich way, connecting Miguel to both his ancestry and his art.

His family eventually finds his musical sanctuary, however, prompting Miguel to take Ernesto’s famed guitar from the mausoleum where he rests. But upon strumming it, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead, and we learn that they don’t really rest at all. Guided by the mysterious yet charming Hector (the great Gael Garcia Bernal), who has the musical knack in his bones as well, Miguel must traverse this unfamiliar landscape of vibrant color populated by the dead and find his family, or Ernesto.

Coco‘s script moves along at too-brisk of a pace, and sometimes has trouble connecting its sequence of events in a manner that rewards the narrative (despite being pretty predictable), but just about everything else about the film is infectious. An animated feature under the Disney banner with this delightfully weird of a sense of humor hasn’t been released since A Nightmare Before Christmas. The film’s premise comes with a lot of dismemberment, with bones flying in every which direction, which leads to some clever sight gags in the background or otherwise.

But its the film’s themes of family and legacy that heighten it to something more than a colorful, cultural premise. There’s no doubt that Coco has been made into an important work in 2017 thanks to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named and his blatantly racist border wall, but the film taps into the most human fear out there: being forgotten. New rules are introduced a little too often in Coco‘s version of the afterlife, but one of its most interesting—and outright depressing—concepts is how the dead can further die once there’s no one to remember them in the Land of the Living. It’s this universal fear that carries the story’s emotion through to a conclusion that, in true Disney/Pixar form, will leave you reaching for the tissues.

Of course, directed by Ohio-born Lee Unkrich and written by Darla K. Anderson, who hails from Glendale, California (both of whom clearly and thoroughly did their research, I should point out), Coco likely resembles an Americanized chronicling of the Dia de los Muertos meant for a wide audience. That’s perfectly fine, a major studio honing in on a specific culture and respectfully delivering a slice of it to the masses will never be a bad thing, but I wonder what gems and jewels might have made it into the film had it been made by those who grew up with this cultural upbringing.

Still, Coco as it is stands tall as easily Pixar’s best work since Inside Out. The film is overflowing with culture, color, and emotion, which more than make up for a few narrative hiccups here and there. It’s a film everyone should see, young and old, to absorb its unabashed warmth, refreshingly weird sense of humor, and themes that connect all of us, no matter the color of our skin. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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