Director: Lee Unkrich
Cast: The voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Sofía Espinosa, Jaime Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 11/22/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 21, 2017
Here is a kid-friendly, computer-animated film from Pixar that directly confronts the subject of death with hope and despair, although it clearly leans more toward the former quality. This is a kid-friendly, computer-animated film, after all, with a plucky, young hero and an assortment of cute animals—of both the real and supernatural varieties—and a brightly colored, elaborate world and a lot of comedy involving skeletons falling apart. Underneath the lovely surfaces and happy trappings of Coco, though, is the fear and inevitability of the finality of death.
This will sound odd, considering that most of the story takes place in an idyllic version of the afterlife, where everyone seems to always be partying and where, one special day of the year, the dead are allowed to return to the mortal world to visit their living family members. There's a catch, of course: The dead have to have living family members in order to make the trip. Those family members have to remember the dead, too. There's a further catch, which gets to the gloomy inevitability of this world, but we'll get to the logical end of an afterlife that requires the memories of the living later.
The film's mythology is founded on the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, and the film itself is a vibrant celebration of Mexican culture (a concept that seems particularly vital in our current political climate, in which the loud talk of a portion of the country has turned to walls and generalizing the quality of people based on their ethnicity or country of origin). The vocal cast is made up entirely of Hispanic and Latino/Latina performers (save for a brief appearance by Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger). All of its cultural references are specific and authentic (It should come as no surprise that these elements are universally relatable, but that assumption brings us back again to the political climate of our day).
The majority of the dialogue is in English, but the essential elements of the story's foundation and the familiar titles of the characters are in Spanish, as a subtle way to signify their cultural import. There's no easy way to communicate the affectionate, respectful simplicity of referring to one's grandmother as Abuelita or one's great-grandmother as Mamá, so the words remain as they must.
The plot involves a grand adventure, of course, as a young boy tries to determine the path of his own life. The boy is 12-year-old Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), who comes from a family of shoemakers. The story of the family's trade is told in a series of animated paper banners, as Miguel's great-great-grandfather abandons his wife and daughter to seek fame and fortune as a musician. His great-great-grandmother banned music from her home—a tradition that, like making shoes, has passed down through the generations of the family.
Miguel wants to be a musician, taking inspiration from Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt), a local cantador who became Mexico's most famous entertainer (His clip reel is a joy of little details, such as a scene from a movie in which he plays a priest who has his guitar always at the ready to teach people life lessons, and his death on stage is unexpected, to say the least). When Miguel announces that he wants to perform at the local talent show for the Day of the Dead, his Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) is outraged and smashes the boy's guitar.
Upon discovering that Ernesto is likely his great-great-grandfather, Miguel decides to "borrow" the star's guitar from his mausoleum. A single strum sends him to the Land of the Dead, from which he can only leave by receiving the blessing of a family member. His great-great-grandmother Imelda (voice of Alanna Ubach) will only grant him her blessing if he agrees to give up music, so with the help of a musician and con artist named Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), Miguel sets off to find Ernesto in order to obtain his blessing.
All of the dead characters are represented as calacas, the skeleton figures associated with the Day of the Dead, and they live in a magnificent city, with floating towers rising into the sky at various levels. Director Lee Unkrich and the film's artists have filled this place and these characters with so many details that it's overwhelming. One will have to watch with close attention to note the intricacies of the costumes, the decoration of the various locales, and the structure of how those characters have been assembled.
It's nearly impossible on a single viewing, and that's primarily because the story and the characters themselves are as involving as they are. This might be a simple adventure tale, but Adrian Molina (who also served as the film's co-director) and Matthew Aldrich's screenplay constantly surprises with its inspirations—from the world's spirits guides (glowing animals of combined species that help the dead in the afterlife), to a back story involving Héctor and Ernesto that is genuinely sinister, to an appearance by Frida Kahlo (voice of Natalia Cordova-Buckley), who has taken her art to a new level of the surreal, with the limitless assets afforded to her by being as remembered as she is. The film's world has a rather cruel class structure, based on a person's popularity in life and after death, that creates a vast gulf between the famous and the soon-to-be forgotten.
All of this looks like a utopian vision of an afterlife, but there is that final catch, which brings us to the forgotten. There's a scene in which one of Héctor's friends, weakened after a long time of being unremembered in the living world, meets an end even after the end of death.
No one, Héctor tells Miguel, knows what's beyond this world of the dead. It's a mournful, rather shocking moment in a film that offers so much hope, but Coco uses the idea of a death after death as a furtherance of its concepts about family and memory (The eponymous character, Miguel's great-grandmother, is losing hers in her old age, and that fact becomes vital to the story's emotionally complex climax). Even in a universe where there's life after death, there is still a responsibility to remember those who have passed from one world to the next. In the film's view, it is literally a matter of life and death.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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