I will freely admit that I broke tradition and did not see Pixar’s Coco in theaters. Not because of anything to do with the movie, but the thought of a near 30 minute “short” starring Olaf from Frozen did absolutely nothing for me. It’s a shame that Disney can’t follow its own advice and “let it go”, on the Frozen business (come on guys, it’s been nearly five years now), because Coco as a standalone film is a visual and storytelling treat.
Coco is a nuanced and detailed world of Mexican culture, and is a unique film as its direction, voice cast, and setting are all based primarily in a rich Latin background. The film doesn’t spend time telling you how amazing all of this is. It immerses the viewer directly into its world, letting the story speak for itself. This is the sign of a good movie that is confident in its subject matter.
So what does “Coco” mean, anyway? Coco is the name of the elderly great grandmother of the Rivera family. Many years ago her musician father left her mother (Imelda) and her by themselves so that he could follow a music career. As a result, Imelda took on shoemaking as the new family trade, and banned music entirely from the family line.
Many years later, 12 year old Miguel has no interest in the family business, instead loving music, and idolizing local celebrity “golden age” musician/actor Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel wants to join the local talent show during Dia de los Muertos, but his love of music is discovered by his family, and his grandmother Elena destroys his guitar. Looking for a replacement guitar, Miguel finds himself at the mausoleum of de la Cruz, getting more than he bargained for when he ends up in the Land of the Dead.
It is here where the film shines. Every scene of this location is bursting with vibrant color and rich music. As a result of visiting this land while alive, Miguel finds himself cursed to die himself. He finds an “easy” chance to return to the Land of the Living, but only wants to do so with his family’s blessing in letting him become a musician. He has to find this family member before the sun comes up and he is trapped forever.
As mentioned before, Coco shows multiple aspects of the rich Mexican culture with a “show, not tell” presentation. There are numerous traditions, humorous moments and cultural nods that decorate this film. Being a film based on death, this film is not afraid to get into some “dark” aspects as well, as the dead can only survive as long as they are remembered by the living. Coco follows the traditional “follow your dream/be who you are” narrative, but also places much emphasis on the importance of family sticking together, and remembering those that come before.
Miguel’s race against time to save himself while searching for his idol de la Cruz provides a lot of great set pieces and poignant moments. There are a few unexpected twists in the plot along the way, and Pixar, being Pixar, is guaranteed to deliver one solidly touching emotional gut punch along the way. And does it ever work, playing on one of my own fears.
The animation (also being Pixar) is superb. The studio has come so far from its original classic Toy Story, and the emotional range and depth in these characters gets the viewer to laugh, cry, and feel right alongside them. The music is wonderful, and its showcase piece “Remember Me” hits where and when it needs to.
Coco‘s timing in release is also poignant. It’s important to remember the richness that an expanded cultural worldview can offer us to grow as better and more well-rounded people. It has a beauty that gently washes over the viewer via its sights and sounds, and while I’ve said in the past that Disney is capable of simultaneously creating amazing things, and callously shelling out terrible things, this is Disney when it remembers its own rich heritage of storytelling. It’s a beautiful must see.
I will admit as I watched the film that I couldn’t help but wonder how this story would have been integrated into Disney Infinity. That aspect still remains a sore spot for me in “what could have been”.