November 22, 2017


Grade: B
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, and Alanna Ubach
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.

The imagination and ingenuity of Coco are further reminders, if any were necessary, of what Pixar can accomplish when it untethers itself from sequels and formulaic safe spaces. To proclaim this the studio’s best film since Inside Out isn’t that remarkable considering the films it has produced in the interim. To note that it’s director Lee Unkrich’s first directorial effort since Toy Story 3 is more eye-opening. While Coco isn’t in the Pixar pantheon, it’s what the studio does best: an enthralling, touching story set amid inspired milieus, both real and fantastic, with a bit of zeitgeist stirred into the heady stew for good measure.

Twelve-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) harbors dreams of being a mariachi singer instead of consigning himself to a future in his family’s cobbler business in the fictional Mexican village of Santa Cecilia. Moreover, clues Miguel deduces from a damaged photograph in the family’s ofrenda convinces him that he’s the great-great-grandson of his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel’s family disapproves, still angered by the hurt suffered by Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) when her famous father abandoned his family for fame and fortune. Indeed, when Miguel tries to sign up for a local talent contest, his grandma (Renée Victor) cruelly smashes his guitar.

On Día de Muertos, Miguel tries to pilfer Ernesto’s signature guitar from his mausoleum. That afront transforms Miguel into a ghost visible only by the deceased, chiefly ancestors who ferry him to the Land of the Dead, an afterlife dimension where the skeletal departed reside and are able to cross over a bridge made of aztec marigold petals and see their descendants. Miguel’s precociousness causes two problems: removing Imelda’s photo means she can’t cross over, while Miguel needs the blessing of a deceased ancestor to return to the world of the living, something Imelda isn’t willing to grant unless Miguel swears off music.

Miguel runs away in search of Ernesto and his alternative blessing, accompanied along his odyssey by Hector (Gael García Bernal), an amiable nincompoop who faces extinction once no one in the living world is left who remembers him. Miguel and Hector’s relationship develops from convenience into something far more tender.

The rules in and out of the Land of the Dead are occasionally inconsistent, and the storyline soon settles into a predictable path and inevitable conclusion. That said, the skeletal characters are patterned after the festive garb donned during Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead, and Unkrich embraces the creative license this lends alongside Pixar’s usually superb photo-realism. The result, designed to appeal to children more than teenagers, is clever and charmingly macabre, a spirited way for kid viewers to process death.

For their parents, Coco is more edifice than artifice, a respectful appraisal of Mexican culture and customs and not a lazy backdrop designed to (just) expand Pixar’s customer base. The milieu sits alongside our current events, and Coco deftly explicates Mexico’s traditions and history in a way that’s both respectful and informative. It expands the viewer's outlook beyond silly slogans and agitprop, and if an animated kids film can do that, no one has any excuses.

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