I’ve said more times than I can count that I love to be surprised. Sometimes that’s an easy thing to do for some film studios, others it’s pretty near to impossible. Such is the case with Coco, the latest film from Pixar who brought you the Toy Story franchise, Cars, and The Incredibles. Now going in to this film I knew it was a fair bet that we were going to see something pretty spectacular. Given that Pixar was going with an all-Latino cast, along with plenty of cultural music to help drive the film, and given Pixar’s pretty reliable reputation for delivering movies with stories of a very high quality, the bar was already set pretty high for me going in to this movie. Then came the surprise… Coco is actually better than I had expected. Yes, Pixar has given us a movie that actually exceeded my already high expectations.
In this latest Pixar movie we meet Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year old boy who was born into a family of shoemakers, and while their whole family appears to be content with this vocation, Miguel’s heart is pulling him into a different direction. He wishes to be a musician and follow the footsteps of his idol, the greatest artist in the world (or at least from Mexico) Ernesto de la Cruz. He loves de la Cruz’s work so much he has even taught himself to play the guitar and to sing his idol’s songs. There is just one problem. Due to a heartbreaking relationship with a musician, his great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda has enforced a ban on all music in her family, and it has passed down from one generation to the next, even to Miguel who is horribly frustrated at this restriction that he believes in his heart is totally unfair. Then, on Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a most cosmic set of circumstances lifts Miguel from the land of the living and places him among the spirits of the dead who are visiting their living family members, including his own ancestors and Imeda herself. Now, with a quest to return to the land of the living, Miguel seeks to receive a blessing from a deceased family member solely so that he can return and perform in a talent competition that is part of the Day of the Dead festivities and prove to everyone, especially his family, that he truly is a musician and needs to be allowed to live his life as he sees fit. It is on this quest that he also meets his idol, de la Cruz, who educates young Miguel on what it means to be a truly successful artist. Joining Miguel on his quest is the most beguiling street dog named Dante, and a somewhat unusual deceased individual who goes by Hector.
To start things off, this movie looks absolutely beautiful! Given Pixar’s reputation for animating what would seem impossible, this movie gets to run the gambit, ranging from some jaw dropping subtle animation during a close-up of Mamá Coco’s face, all the way to some absolutely wild and over the top animation as part of Pixar’s depiction of the land of the dead. I should also add that the animation of young Miguel playing the guitar was absolutely flawless. As a guitarist myself I watched very closely to see how well Miguel’s playing would be animated, and I was so terribly pleased that it whenever there was a close-up of his playing it was always 100% accurate. That is yet another testament to the high standards of animating that Pixar adheres to. It was also a forgone conclusion that they would let their collective minds go wild with their heavily Latin influenced thoughts of what the afterlife be would like, but to still see such glorious settings on the big screen simply took my breath away, and yet it never goes beyond what some might deem as culturally acceptable. The simple fact is this movie looks amazing. Joining the wondrous production values is an equally wondrous cast, including such luminaries like Gael Garçia Bernal (Hector), and even Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz). Again, the entire cast is Latino, thus the studio spent no expense in getting some of the finest Latino voice actors to play the myriad of deceased souls for this film. One humorous role is of noted Frida Kahlo, whose work is very much a part of the Mexican culture. Hers is a character that is used in some of the most amusing scenes of this movie.
Earlier I mentioned how music is a driving force for Coco, and for that Pixar returned to their favorite chameleon composer, Michael Giacchino, who provided some amazing music for this film. I have always been amazed at how he can write in any particular style that is required for that particular movie, and here he steps out even further and provides probably the most authentic soundtrack of his career. Lastly, all of these phenomenal elements wouldn’t amount to anything if it weren’t for one simple element, and that is the story. Executive Producer John Lassetter has stated that “story is king,” and that has to be the singular most important reason why Pixar movies succeed at every turn. This isn’t a studio living on past glories like some one-hit wonder band. This story is one that is filled with turns as well as layers. The way the story helps to develop the characters feels perfectly natural. In fact, it feels so natural that you don’t recognize it as it happens, and that’s precisely what you want out of a film of this nature. However, its genius is in the number of surprises that Coco gives, and yet at no time do any of these surprises feel forced or contrived. If anything they only pulled the audience in deeper into this magical world of the dead. At one time the audience was so entirely engaged with the story that when another surprise occurred I could hear gasps and whispers of astonishment as people quietly whispered between one another what they had just seen. Now that is emotional investment!
Coco is one of those movies that will easily stand the test of time. It’s beautiful story and lush animation will help to make this one of Pixar’s best films. While the studio is most famously known for their Toy Story franchise, the studio really shines when they’re allowed to make movies that are so heavily immersed in the culture of another country. Brave may not have been the kind of movie that Disney can market to death like Toy Story or Cars, but Brave was widely praised for its animation, its story, and is regarded as a love letter to Scotland and its people. Now we have Coco, and it does the same thing through music and culture. Even in the film’s darkest moments, those same elements of music and culture continue to lift and push Miguel, as well as his family, towards fulfilling his quest whilst among the dead, and when the film finally reached its denouement, it was delivered with such amazing power that it quite literally had me sobbing.
In summing up this movie I can pretty much boil it down to three points. First, Coco is a celebration of the Mexican culture. Second, it is a celebration of music. Third, it is a celebration of family, which basically makes Coco the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made.
Coco receives 5 out of 5 guitars!!!
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