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Coco (2017)

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) believes his life to be cursed. Long before he was born, his great-great-grandfather left his family to travel the world as a musician. When he never returned, his heartbroken wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) committed to supporting her only daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia), by starting a shoe crafting business. Forbidding all music from the family so her husband's mistake would never be repeated. But young Miguel is a musician at heart. He loves music and longs to play for an audience like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When Miguel discovers a possible connection between him and his icon, he resolves to seize this moment and play in celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Only to find he has accidentally crossed into the Land of the Dead. Together with a vagabond skeleton named Hector (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) Miguel must find his family and receive their blessing to go home or become a skeleton.

Coco is the latest film to be released by Pixar Studios (their 19th feature film) and co-directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Matthew Aldrich worked with Molina on creating Coco's screenplay based on the film's core concept which was originally developed by Unkrich, Molina, Aldrich and Jason Katz back in 2010. The film's musical score was composed by Michael Giacchino, with a multitude of different writers contributing to the song composition in the film, including Molina, Germaine Franco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Robert Lopez. Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz and playwright/director Octavio Solis were also brought onto the project as consultants.

Before I begin the review I want to make it clear that while I am a huge Pixar fan and have a lot to say about this movie, I am not a member of the demographic that Pixar's Coco is representing. So some of the cultural significance of different moments in the film may be lost on me (since it isn't what I grew up with). That being said, I feel depicting cultural images, characters and ideas with authenticity in a film (regardless of the target demographic) is crucial to making an honest and impactful story.

Which, to me, is exactly what I got out of Coco. An imaginative, honest narrative told with Pixar's unparalleled animation. Framing the story around a wonderful holiday that after seeing it, I would love to learn more about and one day experience in person.

Abuelita Elena Rivera defends her grandson Miguel from a local mariachi musician.

The main focus of the narrative, as shown above, is Miguel's struggle between his desire to play music and his family's traditions. Does he embrace his talent as a musician and follow his dream or does he listen to his family, the people who have loved and raised him? This narrative has been done before in plenty of movies before this one and more experienced moviegoers will recognize certain cliches that come with it (the talent show, the protagonist searching for their idol, etc). Yet, to my surprise, even when I recognized familiar narrative choices it never took me out of the experience. This is a large part of what makes Coco such a wonderful film, it knows just how to pace its story, portray its overall message with honesty and still have a blast with giving its primary characters moments to shine.

The opening of Coco has got to be one of my favorite openings of a Pixar movie to date as it flawlessly sets the stage for what is to come. We learn about the Rivera family history and Miguels' relationship with them. As the protagonist, we want Miguel to be able to follow his dream since he is such an enthusiastic, loving and even responsible young man. However, it is also easy to sympathize with the family by showing how they care for each other and Miguel. This also extends to the members of Rivera family in the Land of the Dead, who only want young Miguel to get home before he is permanently trapped in their world. Special mention goes to several of the scenes with Imelda and Miguel. You can clearly see the tragedy in their interactions as both are torn between their individual beliefs and their commitment to each other as family.

When it comes to Coco's animation, there is little that can be said that hasn't already been said before when it comes to Pixar. The staggering level of detail that is put into the environments (particularly the Land of the Dead), the eye-popping colors, and a cast full of expressive characters which all make for a wonderfully animated flick. Special mention needs to be made however for the specific use of color in this movie and how well it contrasts with the shadows to give the Land of the Dead it's otherworldly aesthetic. Lots of oranges and yellows give to show the vibrancy of the afterlife, but never to the point where it clashes with anything else that is onscreen.

According to the filmmakers, this shot of the Land of the Dead was multilayered to capture the full scope of this otherworldly cityscape.

You would think a movie where music plays a big role would make this a "musical" but in actuality, Coco uses its music as a storytelling tool. Giving the songs just enough time to have the audience tapping their foot and leaving them wanting more as the movie transitions to its next scene. The songs themselves are ridiculously catchy as much as they are heartfelt, the film's main song, "Remember Me." in particular, ties beautifully into the main theme and the biggest emotional moment of the movie.

I am probably gushing at this point but with a film this good, it is hard not to. Though I wasn't expecting it, I would easily put Pixar's Coco in my top 5 Pixar films of all time. Right up there with the Toy Story Trilogy, Inside Out, and Ratatouille. Even though I did not grow up celebrating Dia de los Muertos, I feel like this film has both educated and invited me to learn more about it and what makes it special. And while I may have only seen bits and pieces of the Book of Life, I feel there are enough visual and narrative elements separating that film and Coco to make them both films worth seeing. Thanks to Pixar's dedication, both to their craft and the desire to be authentic, Coco is a film that can be enjoyed by all ages, in multiple languages who want an honest animated film about the importance of remembering the past and how our families make us who we are.

FROM Pixar
1 hr 49 min

IN A NUTSHELL: A film as vibrant and beautiful as the holiday it represents.