Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Brings Spirited Joy (Movie Review)

Remaining on top is difficult. Pixar enjoyed a steady hold as one of the most prestigious studios for a good while, but various sequels outside of the Toy Story series and troubled productions have pushed them to be seemingly just one of the many animation studios out there. Coco is a fantastic return to form. While I haven’t outright disliked any film Pixar has had to offer, this latest effort reaches the sort of greatness you want from any movie. Inspired by Mexican culture and based on the holiday of Dia de los Muertos, Coco is a lively, colorful adventure that hits in all the right ways.

Thanks to a creative prologue, the setting is quickly established. The Rivera family has banned music due to the actions of a great-grandfather who left his family behind. 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), however, loves music and secretly hopes to become a musician. Due to how certain events transpire, his actions during Dia de los Muertos lead him to the Land of the Dead. Now Miguel must find his way home. This means teaming up with a trickster, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and meeting the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), if Miguel truly wants to become who he feels he was born to be.

Coco has a heavy emphasis on the importance of family, legacy, culture, and imagination. All of these are ripe ingredients for a successful Pixar feature, let alone films in general. Director Lee Unkrich and co-director/writer Adrian Molina understand this and do a fantastic job in delivering a story that finds ways to be exciting, surprising, funny and touching. Best of all, however, is just how assured the film is in expanding on its themes and ideas by way of imagination.

One never really has to question the quality of the animation when it comes to Pixar, but given the subject matter for Coco, it is very easy to note just how vibrant this film is. The Mexican village we begin with is already a joy to see based on how much natural life the movie brings to such a setting. However, the Land of the Dead has all sorts of wonder to deliver as well. Given the nature of Dia de los Muertos, the film finds every opportunity it can to show how that time of the year is a celebration. Even in the Land of the Living, we see the sense of joy that comes from setting out photos and food for the ofrenda. All of this and there’s still the nature of the characters.

The Land of the Dead focuses heavy on skeleton imagery, and it’s a credit to the animation team that Coco finds such an excellent balance to realizing these creations. There’s a dark implication, sure, as all of these characters are dead, but the depiction of them works in the sort of ways the best animated films can when it comes to adjusting for all ages. Never too scary, but never too cute, it’s a joy to see the creativity for a world full of skeletons, let alone colorful spirit animals and a giant metropolis of floating buildings.

Adding further to the visual display is the vocal performances. Always on top of things with casting, Coco has found all the right players to make up this cast without succumbing to any controversial choices for the sake of an assumed level of broader appeal. The young Gonzalez takes to Miguel like any good child actor should, pronouncing his emotions to the sort of extreme they would be for a kid his age. Bernal finds the right balance between being sympathetic and a charlatan. Their team-up is great, but there is plenty to be said for the rest as well, including Renée Victor as Miguel’s Abuelita.

Vocals hit another level when it comes to the music of the film. Coco is not an outright musical, but music courses through the film’s veins, as songs occasionally come up organically and delight the audience. The new songs written for this film are all terrific and Michael Giacchino once again finds himself composing a fantastic score that suits the mood of the film and incorporates so much of what it has been inspired by. It’s all the more important thanks to the emotional value that music has in a movie such as this.

As I mentioned, Coco does a lot to make sure the importance of family is felt. For a film that focuses on how a divide came because of music, some real special moments rely on the power of song. Suffice it to say, the film has a few surprises, but one of them focuses on the strength of music in the lives of the dead and the living. It’s a great way to bring the story together, albeit one that will find a way to hit audiences the same way they get hit with other Pixar films game to make them cry, before bringing it all back around with good laughs and more.

That’s the other thing – Coco es muy gracioso. The film is frequently hilarious thanks to the strength of the writing, the sight gags and the effort to bring an authentic feel to the film. This is a movie that his happy to put Mexican culture on display, and while some universalities are showing just how similar any ethnicity is to one another, there are the little differences that Coco recognizes and uses in its favor. Whether it’s seeing Abuelita wield her sandal as a weapon or the strange amount of pleasure found in the many Frida Kahlo jokes, it’s great to see a film find a humorous way to show how it treasures what makes this culture unique.

Coco sees that Pixar magic back in full. The established world is a great one to behold. A vibrant level of animation is a delight to see, let alone the great characters populating both the Land of the Dead and Living. The music only adds to how special this film ends up being. There is a beautiful story to see unfold and it’s been treated with care, never playing down to the audience and frequently finding ways to hit on the varying levels of emotion needed. I’m happy to sing into the sky about just how purely enjoyable Coco truly is.

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