For the majority of this decade, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Pixar have “lost it”, or are merely on a temporary losing streak. The fans suddenly most critical of the Burbank animation studio have claimed that the effects of the studio being bought out by Disney have finally kicked in – why else are we now treated to more sequels and prequels to older favourites, instead of the utterly original stories they won hearts all over the world with? Well, the truth is, while Pixar may have made a couple of bad films this decade (we’re looking at you Cars 2 and Brave), they still have a higher batting average than any other major studio you’d care to name. Even their sequels feel inspired; Finding Dory feels every bit as essential as Finding Nemo, while their Monsters Inc. prequel Monsters University remains one of their most underrated efforts.
Coco; dirs.: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina; USA 2017, 105 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★½/5
After another underwhelming trip to Radiator Springs with Cars 3 earlier this year (the studio’s worst performing film at the UK box office), the studio has bounced back with Coco, a heartfelt return to form that is brimming with the same world building imagination as Monsters Inc. and Inside Out. Here, we take a trip in to an ironically vibrant afterlife, which is filled with extravagant designs and beautifully crafted little details that will easily warrant repeat viewings. The quest-based narrative and the emotional journey that is innately entwined with it may be familiar ground for Pixar, but as far as the world building goes, this is one of their best films – and certainly one of the most beautiful to look at.
In a small Mexican village, twelve year old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming a famous musician, like his hero, the early 20th century singer Ernesto De La Cruz. The only obstacle standing in his path towards musical greatness is the fact his shoe-making family all hate music, and will do anything to ensure music has no part in Miguel’s life. On Día de Muertos, the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebration, a talent show will be taking place in the village, but a falling out with his family sees his guitar get smashed. He discovers that the reason his family hate music is because of a relation to Ernesto De La Cruz – and so breaks into Ernesto’s tomb to steal his guitar, because naturally, Ernesto would want his great, great grandson to be a musician too, right?
After strumming the guitar, Miguel becomes invisible to the living- and starts to see the ghostly skeletons walking around the graveyard, where he meets with deceased family members who take him over to their “land of the dead”. Getting back to the world of the living is easy, all he needs is approval from a member of his family; however, when they enforce the condition that he’s only allowed back if he never plays music again, he escapes, and attempts to find his missing great great grandfather to garner his approval. To do this, he unwittingly gets the help of musician-slash-conman Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have performed with De La Cruz back before he was famous.
Coco possesses several themes that have been present in prior Pixar films; the importance of family, the dangers of hero worship and (of course) a more mature relationship with the spectre of death than any children’s film would be otherwise expected to have. Yet despite walking on familiar ground for the studio, director Lee Unkrich’s film feels anything but familiar. This is all due to the wonderfully written screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, who both understand that merely moving an archetypal Pixar story of self-discovery into a brand new cultural setting would be the worst option for the film to take.
Instead, they have crafted a believable portrayal of a family that spans multiple generations, that accurately represents the angsty emotions of a twelve year old boy, caught between the cultural expectations of his family and dreams of his own that far outgrow his home life. Much has been made of the film’s well-researched cultural and mythical specificity (it’s become the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico for this very reason), yet Miguel’s struggles are the same for teenagers and young adults the world over. Kids will love Coco, but as with all vintage Pixar, it will have an even stronger resonance with viewers from older age groups.
Coco is also the rare children’s film that deals with the subject of Alzheimer’s, and in an emotionally mature manner that would put the majority of adult-oriented films on the subject to shame. The film is named after Miguel’s great grandmother, who still lives with the family even as she is slowly forgetting who they all are – an introductory narration even bluntly states she has no idea who Miguel is. To say more about how the subject of Alzheimer’s is dealt with would be a spoiler, but it pays off in the final ten minutes, one of the most hauntingly beautiful things the studio has ever created, that saw me going for sad tears to happy tears in the space of a single sequence. Forget the opening montage in Up: these final moments are the most emotional thing the studio has ever put their name to, an elegant, mature portrayal of the vulnerability of old age, and the majesty of the afterlife we can only hope will come after it.
Coco is one of the year’s best films, and conclusive proof that Pixar will always bounce back, no matter how many times it’s claimed they have fallen from grace. This is a beautiful film, filled with visual wonder and warm humour, not to mention packing one of the year’s hardest emotional punches. If you aren’t left feeling completely moved by it, I’d suggest urgently checking your pulse.
Coco reaches UK cinemas on January 19th, 2018. Check out the trailer below: