It’s been a while since Disney Pixar has had a financial and critical success. The last was back in 2015, with ‘Inside Out’. Finally, they have another hit on their hands with ‘Coco’ - something so fresh and exciting, it’s impossible to ignore.
The Riveras are an average Mexican family - living in the small village of Santa Cecilia, they make shoes for a living, a family trade which has been handed down for generations. What sets them apart from most Mexican families, however, is their disdain for music. It dates back to when Mamá Imelda’s (Alanna Ubach, ‘Legally Blonde’, ’Meet The Fockers’) husband left her and their child to pursue a career as a singer, leaving him and his passion scorned by generations of family members - that is, all except the youngest child, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Music is the one thing that truly makes him happy, and when he concludes that his great great grandfather was Mexico’s most famous and long-deceased musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, ’Doctor Strange’, TV’s ‘Star’), he decides to follow his dreams at the Día de Muertos talent show. However, without an instrument of his own, he’s forced to “borrow” de la Cruz’s famous guitar - and with it, is transported to the Land of the Dead. Desperate to get back home, Miguel must receive a blessing from a family member - but tracking down the illustrious de la Cruz with only a Xolo dog named Dante and charming trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal, TV’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’, ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’) before dawn won’t be easy.
‘Coco’ is an utter joy. Firstly, it’s authenticity is genuine - the cast is entirely Latino, as are many of the lead creatives, and a great deal of research went into Mexican traditions to ensure the film is as genuine as possible. Its authenticity is proven further by the fact that Disney Pixar made an entirely Spanish version of the film with the same cast, and released it in Mexico for Día de Muertos, where it made over $48 million at the box office and became the country’s highest-grossing film of all time.
It also looks spectacular. 20th Century Fox released the Mexican-themed ‘The Book Of Life’ back in 2014, which featured an almost-Land of the Dead setting, which was an onslaught of colours on screen. Here, The Land of the Dead is depicted as immense and towering, with a stunning vibrancy, but also dark and shade. It’s a nicer balance, giving elements like the alebrijes (animal spirit guides) all the more impact with their stunning fluorescence. A ridiculous level of detail has gone into the world building for ‘Coco’, and as you fly on trams through the sky or run through the streets of the city, you’ll be in awe at the setting.
The cast are fantastic, truly inhabiting their characters and offering great talent, but none more so than Anthony Gonzalez. This 12-year-old has been playing in mariachi bands since he was four, and brings so many complex emotions to the character that you entirely forget he’s just a child. Miguel is so full of sparkling tenacity and infectious cheekiness that, by the end, I wanted to take him home and raise him as my own. Gonzalez is also a ridiculously talented musician, and from the first moment he sings, you’ll be utterly blown away; ‘Un Pico Loco’ is undoubtedly my favourite song in the film.
The rest of the cast are equally as impressive. Gael García Bernal as Hector has perhaps the most complex role of the film, with a genuinely affecting portrayal of a character that’s part comedic sidekick, part perishing skeleton. Alanna Ubach’s Imelda is also brilliant, with her tough but caring matriarch. In the Land of the Living, Renée Victor keeps up the trend of strong women as Miguel’s Abuelita (grandmother), who will do anything to protect her family from the misguided path of music.
The cast are fantastic, truly inhabiting their characters and offering great talent, but none more so than Anthony Gonzalez. He brings so many complex emotions to the character of Miguel that you entirely forget he’s just a child.
In fitting with the best of Pixar’s (and Disney’s) films, ‘Coco’ has dark themes; it’s largely set in the Land of the Dead, for goodness sake. The story hinges on the dead being forgotten by the living and enduring the “final death.” You also see numerous people die on screen, including a murder, and more subtly, the film also shows the struggles of single mothers. It’s fantastic to see this film dealing with these tough topics, and Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s screenplay handles them effortlessly. The Pixar team’s greatest skill lies in bringing to life ridiculously cute animals as characters, and here Dante, the half-slinky half-playdough dog, is the epitome of delight.
For a film rooted in music, it would have fallen flat if the tunes weren’t up to scratch. Fortunately, it has some genuinely addictive original songs, which easily could have been written by a much-loved Mexican singer decades ago. With a team that included Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winner Robert Lopez - the man responsible for the music of ‘Avenue Q’, ‘The Book Of Mormon’ and ‘Frozen’ - his collaborator and wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco, the film’s co-director Adrian Molina, and musical consultant Camilo Lara of musical project Mexican Institute of Sound, the songs are a perfect blend of contemporary and timeless Mexican music. They pair seamlessly with Michael Giacchino’s (‘Ratatouille’, ‘Up’) score, providing a fitting aural backdrop to the impressive visual word.
(I also thoroughly recommend hitting up your favourite streaming service and taking a listen to the Spanish renditions of the film's songs, to get lost in the true beauty of this music.)
Besides a marginal degree of predictability, I haven’t got a bad word to say about ‘Coco’. Perhaps it’s my predisposition towards all things Mexican, but this film has so much going for it - its passion, integrity and charm make it an instant Disney Pixar classic. You’ll be sucked in by its infectious music, loveable characters, wondrous world, and the personality of a small boy named Miguel who loves music more than anything else. Grab a friend (and maybe a small box of tissues) and enjoy escaping into this remarkable story.