It’s been a long year for animation. While we’ve had a couple good hits here and there, there’s been a lack of quality in many titles.
So I really needed Coco.
The film opened in Mexico last month, unusual since American studios tend to release their films domestically first. Coco ended up becoming the highest grossing movie of all time in Mexico, and rave reviews heralded an upcoming splendor. Now that it’s actually hit theaters, I can confirm. Coco is a wonderful treat that gives us an affecting story that celebrates Día de los Muertos in a sincere and wonderful way.
Coco is directed by Lee Unkrich and Andrew Molina. The movie opens with some exposition by Miguel, played by Anthony Gonzalez. He talks about his family’s history, focusing on the moment they banned music. The family’s now been in the shoe business for generations, but Miguel wants to play music. His passion leads him to follow the footsteps of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). On Día de los Muertos though, tensions flare between Miguel and his family, and he ends up getting himself lost in the Land of the Dead. He now has to find a way back home before he becomes permanently dead, and find a way to follow his dream of being a musician.
The film brims with delightful characters, starting with our protagonist Miguel. He’s a kid who wants more than his life has to offer — familiar for Disney, of course, but it’s executed very well. Coco walks a fine line with Miguel: he makes a few choices that are selfish from a mature perspective, but you can still understand his motivations. He never intends any harm upon anyone. As the way home becomes more complex, more people begin depending on him for his journey to succeed. Miguel has to navigate through thornier choices to try and balance their wants and needs with his own. Plus, he’s still a kid, and it’s reasonable for him to make some poor choices. It ends up making him feel more realistic, he learns from his mistakes, and we keep rooting for him.
In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets a skeleton named Hector, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal. Miguel first sees Hector attempting to rush past security to get to the Land of the Living, and he’s presented very much as a rapscallion character. As one might expect, he ends up bonding with Miguel. As the film digs more and more into his character though, we find a very complex man, harboring deep-rooted fears and concerns. By the end of the movie he is not at all the same character as in the beginning, and I love it. Hector is my favorite character in the movie and, the more I consider it, one of my favorite characters Pixar has created. He’s funny, he’s emotional, and Gael Garcia Bernal brings him to life in the best way.
The other characters are also all great. Miguel ends up meeting his Mamá Imelda, voiced by Alanna Ubach. She was the great-great-grandmother who banned music. In death she remains the matriarch of the family, and offers to send Miguel home — on the condition he never play music again. Obviously he denies that condition, and she ends up pursuing him. As the film unfolds though, she ends up becoming more complex as a character, and definitely goes through her own arc. Ernesto de la Cruz also ends up being quite interesting. He’s still popular in the Land of the Dead, and lives the high life… or, well, their “high life” equivalent. As Miguel’s musical idol, he ends up going along a familiar “fallen idol” trope. An extra twist gets added, though, which heightens the drama and left me genuinely shocked.
So far I’ve mentioned a lot of the major players in Coco, but I’ve not touched upon the titular character herself. That would be Mamá Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother and daughter of Mamá Imelda. Her screen time may be limited, but Coco definitely deserves to be the title of the movie. She links everything together by the end, and had me shedding tears. However, the story delivers not one, but several emotional moments that left me crying in the theater. The plot also takes a clever and meaningful twist, that will have me looking out for little details upon my second viewing.
Unfortunately, no movie is flawless, and for the sake of honesty I have to point out a couple of things I noticed. Near the beginning of the movie, Miguel explains how his great-great-grandfather turned his back on the family to become a musical star. Meanwhile, the musical star Ernesto de la Cruz came from the same town at about the same time. It seems an obvious connection, and while Miguel makes it early on, I was still surprised he hadn’t made it before. Second, near the end of the movie a character reveals they’ve been hiding something for years. I’m being deliberately vague on details for the sake of spoilers, but after the fact I began to question how they managed to keep the item hidden for so long. Of course these are nitpicks, and I’m glad when a movie leaves me nitpicking for problems.
Honestly, there’s little else to say. It’s Pixar, so obviously the animation is incredible. Michael Giacchino gives a great score, especially for a movie all about music. The centerpiece of the soundtrack is “Remember Me”, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. It’s a short and simple song, that takes on different meanings as the movie progresses. Coco‘s a visual treat, nice to listen to… it’s a success all the way around.
Coco is exactly the movie I needed to see. It’s sweet, affecting, funny, somber, all at the right times and at the right beats. All cast and crew should feel proud for such brilliant work, especially Adrian Molina. This is Molina’s first time directing, and only his second writing position. It’s satisfying to see Pixar branching out beyond their initial brain trust. I look forward to seeing more excellent work in the future from Molina, and the studio as a whole.
David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.