Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Pixar have delved into the metaphysical before with their high water mark Inside Out, a family adventure film that somehow also managed to encompass a bold and complex message about self-awareness and early onset depression (quite how it did this so nimbly remains the studio’s greatest trick). It was the most grown-up of their films, and it was telling that they followed it, within a year, with the more kid friendly The Good Dinosaur. But the studio isn’t done prying into complex themes, and Coco approaches an even thornier issue, especially considering the tender age of a portion of their audience.
As though passed the touch from the makers of Kubo And The Two Strings over at Laika, Pixar have elected to tell their latest story from a vantage outside of North America, in this case travelling down to Mexico. With the Mexican festival of the Day Of The Dead right there for the taking, it’s a smart enough choice, but it also speaks to the animation studio’s continuing ability to stay ahead of the curve, embracing a more culturally diverse mix of characters (sorry, Scotland, Brave doesn’t quite count) as the global audience’s yearning for such stories becomes more pronounced. Kudos, too, for casting Latin Americans to voice these characters. Controversies surrounding John Lasseter notwithstanding, Pixar know how to avoid an iceberg when they see one.
Coco opens heavy with exposition, but there’s a lot of family history to establish. Living in a small town, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) yearns to grow up to be a famous musician like his hero and estranged great great-grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). However, his ancestral celebrity walked out on the family, who over the generations have been taught to hate music. The family trade is in cobbling; something which Miguel finds less than inspiring. As the Día de Muertos approaches, so too does a talent contest. In order to take part, Miguel sneaks into a shrine to his beloved Ernesto to ‘borrow’ his guitar, only to find himself suddenly sucked into the Land Of The Dead; a spiritual afterlife where his countrymen continue to exist in skeletal form.
Oh, and a doolally stray dog called Dante goes along too.
Coco nods its head respectfully to Latin American culture and one can sense the depth of the research undertaken by the creative team, but there’s another pressing influence which hangs over the whole picture. The narrative and some of its striking visual motifs strongly recall Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful Spirited Away, from the importance of bridges to the appearance of magical winged creatures; spirit guides that assist their human familiars. In that pattern, Miguel’s story becomes one of striving to return home, in the process learning the importance of family. It’s a coming of age story in a most fantastical setting.
While some concerted effort has been made to cartoonify the appearance of the skeletal characters so that little ones won’t be unduly troubled or scared by their prolific appearance, there remains something macabre about Coco which comes across in its humour, which most often resorts to how freakishly collapsible its characters are. Eyes slip from sockets, arms dislocate wholly from bodies. It’s all played in jest, but some of the more sensitive little ones might be a little disturbed. But what’s more likely to get them is restlessness. Coco doesn’t pander to short attention spans and has a wordy, performance driven narrative filled with long scenes of talking. In the process it tips its hat fondly to that lesser celebrated Mexican tradition; the melodramatic soap opera.
Miguel discovers a wealth of familial grudges and resentments in the Land Of The Dead, along with a few surprise revelations about lineage that would be right at home in a daytime serial. This isn’t detrimental to the film, but to find so much of it in a major animated feature is a tad unusual. But then, this is Pixar. Still, Coco is light on comedic distractions and action set pieces are all but totally absent. Perhaps even more so than Inside Out, this is their most mature work from a narrative perspective.
It’s common custom at around this point in the review to gush generously about the quality of the animation and it is, of course, impeccable. More and more, Pixar are leading the way in terms of what can be achieved through CG animation, and it feels as though each film has its own dedicated advancement to make. With The Good Dinosaur there was the photo-realism of the landscapes and the depiction of water. Here it is lighting. The Land Of The Dead shimmers with candlelight in wide shots depicting an elegant cityscape that looks dusted with fireworks. The bulk of the story takes place over a long, long night, so that characters feel warm against shadowed backgrounds. You sense the proximity of light sources on their faces (or their bones). The film’s technical MVP, then, is Danielle Feinberg, who receives credit as the director of photography for lighting alone. In addition, Coco sees advancement in the realistic weighting of objects (something CG has famously struggled with). It’s there in the smallest details, like how a dress falls and moves in a light breeze. They frankly put all of their competition to shame.
Where Inside Out offered an entry point for parents to discuss emotional intelligence with their children, its unclear whether Coco will prove as useful when engaging in the hot potato of mortality. Chiefly, this is because it offers a fantasy world as an answer to one of humanity’s great unanswered questions. But it does foster a message of respect and fondness for those we lose. In fact, it feels as though the film’s cadre of writers have latched onto one of the saddest visualisations in Inside Out for inspiration; that of the great pit of forgotten memories into which Joy and Bing Bong descend. The old adage that something survives only for as long as it is remembered is played upon here with great dramatic consequence. Pixar can imagine-up a dazzling afterlife, but what’s after the afterlife becomes the next scary unknown. Regardless, for all its ghoulishness, Coco seems most likely to provoke visits to the graveyard, rather than demonising them. Say hello to your relatives. Remember them.