Pixar is back. After two sequels (Finding Dory and Cars 3), the animation giant has once again turned their flare and ingenuity to an original creation. Coco displays much of the narrative dexterity we’ve come to expect from the studio, with the addition of a distinct cultural heritage.
Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a musician. However, his shoemaking family won’t allow music in their home on account of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, who walked out on his wife and daughter to pursue a career in music. Miguel’s passion is unshakeable and the town’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) talent show is the big break he’s been waiting for. But he needs an instrument and, when he breaks into the mausoleum of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), one of Mexico’s most popular musicians, a strum on de la Cruz’s legendary guitar transports Miguel to the Land of the Dead. In order to return to the world of the living, he must connect with his deceased relatives.
Pixar is famed for their Braintrust, a group of their principle storytellers that work on all of the studio’s projects. This narrative collaboration is at the forefront of Coco. There are four credited story writers (director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, as well as Matthew Aldrich and Jason Katz) and they once again turn to the classical hero’s journey with a quest to another world complete with mentors, enemies and treasures. This is the template for so many of popular culture’s greatest tales (Star Wars, for example) and it’s a mythic blueprint Coco draws from heavily. However, as they have done with many of their most beloved creations, they subvert and play with the stepping stones of this age-old narrative. You likely know most of the tricks by now, but especially effective and challenging is the pertinent study of the disappointing hero. They frame the fallen idol as a potent metaphor for growing up and learning to come to terms with corrupt adults.
The added element is that all these narrative beats are rich with cultural detail. The visuals and iconography of the Day of the Dead festival are captured exquisitely, but that’s only the beginning. The writing team weave the unique traditions and values into the very mythology of this story. It’s also where much of the emotional gravitas derives from, particularly regarding the film’s study of loss.
The animation is breathtaking. Year on year, Pixar continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible with computer-generated visuals. Particularly notable here are the advancements in character movement. The dead are portrayed as clothed skeletons and they each have a detailed and distinct walk, even down to the lovely side characters. It’s played for laughs on a couple of occasions, but it’s a real marvel to behold. They also experiment with alternative forms of visual storytelling. A short prologue is told via papel picado, decorative banners made from coloured tissue paper. Elsewhere, dazzling alebrije spirit animals stand out from the traditional animation. They feel hand-drawn but glow phosphorescently, which results in a cel-shaded look that feels both at one with the Land of the Dead and completely alien to it.
The soundtrack acts as a lively pulse to the action. The musical numbers are short and there are some lesser tunes in there, but the award-winning “Remember Me” is a real treasure. It’s repeated throughout the film and performed by numerous characters. The way the meaning transforms from one singer to another is really moving and encapsulates the emotional power of music. And Michael Giacchino’s mariachi-inspired score connects the songs very effectively.
Coco feels timeless. It’s rendered in an analogue world of matinee idols and family values. It’s a film that celebrates tradition, but not blindly. It questions and challenges it too, making an otherwise familiar narrative feel special and emotionally rewarding.