When one talks about Pixar, there are a few things that always come up. Toy Story tends to dominate conversations. The first ten minutes of Up are fondly remembered. WALL-E is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made in the minds of so many. Even after a rocky spell where the growing commercialism, signified by the bloated Cars franchise and its spin-offs, seemed to show that the Disneyfication of Pixar was inevitable, the studio has righted course in recent years with a succession of solid, even inspiring efforts, like Inside Out.
The common thread – even in Cars and Cars 3 (not so much in Cars 2) – is story-telling and characters that cut to the heart of human emotion, regardless of what is actually on-screen, be it living toys, geriatrics in a balloon house or, in this case, a cavalcade of talking skeletons. Pixar’s 2018 effort, taking its cues from Mexican mythology, stood to be the latest in a new generation of Pixar classics, this time taking the confluence of music and memory as its touchstone. Such a choice seems oddly daring, even for Pixar, but who better to approach such a topic?
Talented guitar player Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) grows up in a family steadfastly opposed to music of any kind, after a family ancestor vanished in a pursuit of mariachi fame. Coming to believe that this ancestor was the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel is soon cast on a journey to the Land of the Dead, where he falls in with vagabond Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) on his quest to meet his idol.
Oh boy, the curiously titled Coco (watch it, you’ll see what I mean). Regardless of whatever I am going to say in the next 1500 or so words, there is one thing I could outline that will determine whether you would appreciate Coco or not: at the conclusion of the film, my poor girlfriend was in bits, tears streaming, and I was doing my level best to hold them back also. Pixar’s been knocking out the decent films for a long time now, but this is the first example since Up where an instance of their work has had myself and others in such emotional straits. How does it do this?
Well, it does it by being a brilliantly constructed treatise on death, how we react to it, and how we remember the people who have passed, and fusing these ideas to the musical delights that Coco puts centre-stage. It could have been lost in complication, but its gloriously simple in execution. Through Miguel’s journey through the Land of the Dead, Pixar challenges the audience to consider the importance of remembering where you’ve come from and the way your family shapes you; how artistic expression is (quite literally) good for the soul; and that the simplest things can bring warmth, joy and life to the most decrepit of hearts.
The plot is a concise enough thing, mixing plenty of monomyth (quite a spectacular “crossing the threshold” moment here) but it is fun to watch, as Miguel stumbles into the Land of the Dead, inadvertently cursing himself by stealing from the deceased (hilariously winding right back in the Land of Dead when he gets home the first time, by stealing the same thing again). The film never gets too heavy or meta with its narrative, establishing clear understandable goals for Miguel and Hector, and leaving plenty of room for escapades, like an impromptu talents show of calavera musicians, or a trip to the immigration department of the Land of the Dead, or a cross-dressing fist-flinging, death (literally) defying finale set on a stage before a crowd of thousands.
The beating heart of the film is that convergence of music and memory. Mexican mariachi style, that of simple rhythms on acoustic guitar, are brilliantly rendered on-screen (look at the animation for Miguel’s fingers and his guitars chords as he plays: simple and mesmerising), but take on an additional metaphysical dimension as a gateway to the afterlife, where music remains a key part of existence, whether it is the pauper playing his last song on a six-string, or the superstar blaring out a concert to millions on his ivory tower.
The world depicted here is a fascinating one that you just want to dive right into, an afterlife where the emphasis is on how well, if at all, you are remembered by those you’ve left behind. The celebrities live in opulent surroundings, and the forgotten fade away into nothing. In imaging such a world, writer Alfred Molina, drawing on his own background finds a way to tie all of his themes together, while also envisioning a rather genius class angle to the Mexican afterlife.
And on the approach to death, Coco takes some interesting choices. You might worry that the young’uns will be horrified or distressed at such a film, but I can’t fault Coco, which neither patronises nor deals with harshly the idea that people die and leave others behind. Coco’s general message is one that rejects grieving in favour of celebration, of remembering the dead fondly instead of moping around and dwelling on what once was. Remembering is important, but it has to be positive. Much in line with the higher message of Inside Out, Coco pushes the very welcome idea that your well-being is directly tied to learning how to process grief properly. This is all wrapped up in the films titular character, a reveal that comes late, but which contributes immensely to making Coco the emotional rollercoaster that it is
There is a certain noticeable similarity to Up in some ways, which as big a criticism as I could realistically level at Coco’s feet, both in the general theme – not allowing your past to unduly influence your present to a negative extent – and in the central narrative crux of the surprise antagonist. I could give a spoiler warning, but anyone with a modicum of intelligence will see Coco’s big surprise coming, and it shares Up’s idea of killing your idols to an extent that barely walks the line of homage and lifting.
Pixar will never have a problem with voice acting, tending to eschew celebrity stunt casting in favour of the less spectacular, but more capable. Here, they obviously went looking for those with musical talent, with Bratt and Bernal doing very well, while Gonzalez rivals Auli’I Cravalho as a breakout VA child star. Their work is great: Gonzalez as the lost Miguel seeking to find an identity both familial and artistic, Bratt as a bigshot with a creepy vibe and Bernal as adown on his luck sort who is more than meets the eye.
But as much as that, the film works on a visual level, with the Land of the Dead a sight to behold. It reminded me very much of Rapture from Bioshock in a way, this somewhat twisted urban metropolis that defies traditional concepts of architecture while remaining very familiar: the marigold bridge for example, a simple enough structure, but one imbued with that majestic sense of magic and visual wonder. The entire gargantuan concept of the Land of the Dead, from de la Cruz’ tower to the shanty town for the nearly forgotten, is Pixar doing their very best to bring such an otherworldly place to life.
And everything else I great too, with Pixar’s animators having long since mastered the way to bring human figures to life in their work, avoiding the uncanny valley, while also building up every environment they reside in with the required amount of detail. Case in point, the films treatment of altars, crucial to the overall theme, with Mexican ofrenda featured prominently, but there’s also Miguel’s hidden shrine to de la Cuz, squirreled away in the family attic. It’s a picture perfect scene of old records, posters and a battered VHS player showing a well-worn copy of the “Best of Ernesto”, and it looks so real. The expressionist leanings of the film beam out throughout, a potent mix of the glowing, almost neon-ish, and the tattered.
Oh, and the music, that wonderfully peppy Mexican guitar. This semi-musical approach, very Disney in many ways (indeed, the writers behind Frozen’s songs were involved here) is unique to Pixar, but you’ll nod along to de la Cruz’s back catalogue (complete with a Presley-esque series of hokey looking movies), to the redacted bawdiness of “Juanita”, to the joyful rhythms of “Un Poco Loco” and, of course the many variations of the films signature piece, “Remember Me”, best depicted as a softly spoken lullaby from a father to a distant child. “Never underestimate the power of music” days de la Cruz near the beginning: he’s right, as Coco would be nowhere near the experience that it is without the musical acumen it displays throughout. So many of Pixar’s films are love letters to something, be it toys or cars or superheroes: Coco has music to fill that category, but this particular brand of enthusiastic toe-tapping guitar.
It’s great. Films that have the ability to connect with the audience so intimately and so simply should be celebrated, and it’s a testament to the greatness of Pixar that they just keep doing it over and over. Coco is another one of their greats, that deserves to be on the same pedestal as Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 or The Incredibles, as one of Pixar’s best presentations of the human condition. The cast is fantastic, the visuals are immense, the music is spectacular: barring a few minor things here and there and a certain semblance to previous efforts, Coco is winning on all fronts, an emotionally rewarding homage to Mexican culture and the importance of family. If they keep coming up with the goods like this every few years, I think we can all grant Pixar some license with sequels. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).