Coco (2017) Movie Review by John Walsh

Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (co-director)
Writers: Lee Unkrich (original story by), Jason Katz (original story by)
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt

The latest release from Disney Pixar is always a highly anticipated thing. This one is directed by Lee Unkrich (the man responsible for the brilliant Toy Story 3) and written by Adrian Molina, who is of course no stranger to an animated film himself. Coco is a taut, wonderfully crafted film from the real masters of animation that is aesthetically stunning, packs an emotional punch, features a great little story and is an authentic celebration of real Mexican culture.

It focuses on the small town, shoe making Rivera family, and more specifically, the main protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who shines shoes and seems destined to follow in the well trodden, mundane footsteps of his extended family. But this young chap yearns for a greater purpose in life.

He’s absolutely transfixed by and creatively gifted at playing the guitar. What’s the issue with that? It’s a fairly normal interest for any young person to have, but it’s a real sticking point in the Rivera family where music is both despised and outlawed. A fact that Miguel can thank his borderline ancient, dementia suffering, great-grandmother Coco for gifting his family.

The reason for this bizarre ban on all forms of music is quite simple. Coco’s husband ran off in pursuit of fame, money and success as a musician, leaving both her and her infant daughter behind. Thus the deep set hatred of music was left to fester for decades. Miguel in the midst of his rebelling, discovers this tragic backstory, puts two and two together and decides during this eureka moment that the legendary performer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) must be his long lost relative.

Which is somewhat fitting because he’s soon transported to the land of the dead to join him, during Dia De Los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of the dead. Suddenly finding himself trapped, he must prove his musical ability to his grandfather in order to obtain both his blessing to be a musician and be sent back to the land of the living.

Now Coco does heavily utilise exposition during the early stages of the film, something I’m not usually a massive fan of, but in this case it was absolutely necessary to do so, in order to explore some of the major themes of the film and also just to setup the ‘rules’ of the interesting world it thrusts the viewer into.

Memories are all important in Coco. The dead are able to transcend the void if there memory is honoured with a photograph during the celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos. And likewise, if all memories of a person fade then so does their existence on the other side. Which is why poor Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) is frantic throughout. And this theme of memories is something that’s hammered home with the brillIantly remorseful song ‘Remember Me’ which has a real chance of netting an academy award and has already joined the pantheon of Disney classics in my mind.

This simple thematic message shines a powerfully, poignant light on the importance of remembering those who have gone. Something which just about anybody should be able to relate with. And this is something Coco really excels at. Beneath the wacky, colourful surface is a thought provoking undercurrent that will both entertain, educate children and connect with adults alike.

Knowledge of this system also allows the film to explore other key themes of family, ambition and whether the two can be balanced to coexist harmoniously too. It does this specifically by throwing a shocking twist into the mix which teaches young Miguel a valuable lesson about life. Said twist also leaves him pondering whether his desire to be a musician is worth tearing his family apart like his great grandfather did all those years before.

The visuals in this film are absolutely stunning, as you would expect from a Pixar crafted movie, but the moment little Miguel enters the vibrant land of the dead is on another level. The colourful bridges and the towering mass of swarming buildings is jaw dropping. I can’t very well mention the visuals and not name drop the goofy looking Dante, a hairless Mexican dog.

Music threads it’s way through the heart of Coco’s story and as such it would remiss of me not to mention the soundtrack or score. It’s completely original, incredibly infectious and ear worm inducing. There’s a couple of great numbers in there but ‘Remember Me’ is deservedly the standout.

The acting is tremendous throughout with some great performances from Anthony Gonzales as Miguel; Gael Garcia Bernal as Hector, his bony sidekick for the majority of the running time; Benjamin Bratt as Ernesto de la Cruz, the conniving, sleazy performer and Renee Victor as Abuelita. More importantly though is the continued push for racial diversity from Disney. We saw it with Moana last year and the all Latino cast for Coco feels like an important step in the right direction and something the studio should be commended for doing.

In the end, it really is a great little animated film. It explores so many important themes, in the midst of flourishes of action and there’s definitely some satirical digs at the xenophobic Trump presidency, who appears to hate all things Mexican, but it thankfully doesn’t linger on the political stuff too much and instead focuses on the key themes of family, love and the dangers of ambition and/or fame in a world which has become increasingly obsessed with it.

Disney and Pixar took a real risk making an animated film for kids with death as a major component, but it paid off and it was necessary after two back to back lacklustre sequels.

I said it wasn’t exceptional after my first viewing and I’ve softened my stance after a second. It’s a highly enjoyable watch with an emotive, tear jerker of a third act and I’d highly recommended giving it a watch.

Rating: 4/5

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