When Pixar really works its magic, it can create a film that will last in the mind for years. It’s the powerhouse that has given us films like TOY STORY and WALL-E, and continues to be the standard-bearer when it comes to defining the power of animated storytelling. With COCO, Pixar has another bonafide hit on its hands – a perfect tale that will warm the hearts of children and adults alike.
COCO tells the story of a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who is raised in a family that has banned all music after a family tragedy from decades before. Miguel, naturally, rebels against this atmosphere – he is an aspiring musician and he only wants to prove himself in the eyes of his family. On the Day of the Dead, he steals a guitar belonging to the famous (and deceased) Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and subsequently finds himself transported to the land of the dead. To return to the living, Miguel must obtain the blessing from his deceased family members – but their blessing comes with a price: he must never play music again. Bristling at the very idea of no longer having music in his life, Miguel turns to a trickster named Hector (Gael García Bernal) to track down a family member that will give him their blessing with no strings attached.
COCO is so realistic that I often forgot I was watching a cartoon. Not because of the 3D animation, but because the characters are so convincing. Watching this family squabble, it feels like an actual family. When Miguel’s grandmother, Elena Rivera (Renee Victor), goes on a tirade and throws a shoe, it is incredibly realistic. When the stray dog that follows Miguel around gets into trouble, it is uncannily life-like. The world of COCO feels incredibly lived in, and that carries on into the land of the dead – a breathtakingly beautiful, colorful world that is filled with light, music, and character. There’s an honesty in the storytelling of COCO that makes it so heartwarming.
The Mexican culture, language, and music all play an understated, but nevertheless crucial, role in the film. There are only a few lines actually delivered in Spanish, and they’re in a context that anyone could understand – but just having those lines in the film play an important role in speaking to any Hispanic child watching this film. Similarly, the Mexican culture is on display throughout the film. Not just in highlighting the Day of the Dead, but more in the depiction of family and the central role that music plays. It comes as no surprise that COCO would also have a delightful soundtrack, given its musical focus. It’s not a typical Disney musical, but when the songs are performed, they make sense and pull at the heartstrings.
COCO is a story about death. But it’s approached in a way that is simple for children to understand. Death is a tough topic to broach, and COCO manages to break it all down in a palatable way that encourages further discussion. In the film, Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco Rivera (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is slowly dying. She’s very old, and her character is instantly both endearing and heartbreaking. She’s incredibly wrinkled and often portrayed with a slow, fading memory – something that children may overlook but it’s a characterization that will strike right at the hearts of adults. It’s heartbreakingly realistic, and frankly refreshing to see so much realism and honesty in this film.
COCO is a love letter to Mexican culture, and it’s a film that is clearly made with love. The characters will stick with you long after the film ends, and it offers a delightful window into a culture that doesn’t often get an opportunity to be viewed in the limelight. COCO is a colorful, musical film that is bursting at the seams with love.