I know that there have been a lot of animated films lately, and anyone with kids has already gone to see Coco and moved on, but I just saw it and still want to say how great I thought the movie was. Pixar’s track record has slipped a bit from the flawless hit-factory that it had been (no thanks to The Good Dinosaur or mediocre Cars sequels), but Coco reminds me that they are still top-notch when it comes to animated storytelling. This story of a young Mexican boy whose soul longs to be a musician, despite his family’s legacy of shunning music as a curse (ever since great-grandma Coco’s father left his family to pursue a musical career) is a fun, touching, adventurous spectacle.
Even before the first scene, I was reminded of Pixar’s technical mastery (there was a pre-movie clip with some of the creators which showed-off some of film’s wonderful visuals), but it was in the opening few sequences that their progress really became obvious. It wasn’t in the big, jaw-dropping scenes full of millions of lights and moving bits (though those are always awesome) but in the regular motion of the characters, such as main boy Miguel and his dog Dante. Human animation has always been a struggle between making the characters look and move too artificially puppet-like or too creepily realistic. In this movie, the characters all still look cartoonish (with their disproportionately large heads and hands, etc.) but their movements are amazingly life-like and the entire world they are in feels real. I was especially fascinated by a motion that occurred often in this movie: the strumming of a guitar. It is probably something that is so easily filmed using a camera in the real world, but to simulate those strumming motions and the vibration of strings in time to the music must have taken ages to get right. I know I’m geeking out a bit, but I can’t say enough about how transporting and engaging the animation really made this movie for me.
Beyond the impressive visuals, this movie also harkened back to some of the more heart-touching works in the Pixar canon, like Up or Toy Story. (Be warned that there’s a surprisingly simple yet moving scene at the end of the movie. It’s right where you expect it to be, but it’ll still getcha! Tissue, please.) Miguel (played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is an exuberant, happy kid, who balances a love and respect for his family with a secret love of music, especially the music of his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt). When some magical coincidences end up sending him to the land of the dead on the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he meets up with the spirits of his past relatives and the conflict between love of family and music sets up a difficult choice for Miguel again.
As usual, in these kinds of movies, a bunch of ground rules are set for the Land of the Dead, establishing that Miguel needs to be blessed by his family before sunrise in order to return to the living (subject to terms and conditions). Along the way to solving those challenges, Miguel runs into a vagabond spirit, Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to get back to the living world before he is forgotten, and fades away, forever. The ground rules are a great way to lay out the dramatic stakes (especially for kids), and it’s so much easier to understand what things mean in the language of the movie. That being said, there are a few delightful plot twists in this movie (not entirely unpredictable, but enjoyable nonetheless) which also keep things interesting. The best part of this story is that these concepts are all cast within the context of the Mexican culture and its folklore and traditions. From ofrendas (i.e. altars) where families display photos and other items to honour the dead; to alebrijes (i.e. spirit animals) which are colourful fantasy creatures carved out of wood or paper mache for the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it really brings this celebration of Mexican culture to vivid life, and ties it all back to music (which is apparently a big part of Mexican culture as well, at least according to this movie).
All in all, it’s great to see another new creation from Pixar (especially one that does not involve humanizing generally cold things like toys or bugs or fish). I look forward to them continuing on this path (even though I’m also looking forward to more sequels such as Incredibles II coming), because while they are definitely leading the way in terms of animation technology, they have also led the way in terms of creative family-friendly visual storytelling; and we need as much of both as we can get. (4.5 out of 5)