Coco (2017)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/17 10:09:32

"Good Bones"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

With a storyline that is set mostly in the land of the dead and deals with a young boy who accidentally crosses over and struggles to make his way back to the world of the living before he becomes a permanent resident of a world where everyone is a skeleton and one’s worth is measured by how much they are remembered in the real world, “Coco,” despite having been produced under the aegis of Pixar, may strike some as sounding a little on the dark and morbid side for a film ostensibly aimed at younger audiences. As it turns out, the film, despite its ostensibly creepy trappings, is a good, if not great, run through the standard Pixar formula that is bolstered by its distinct visual style, the long-overdue expansion of its cultural palette and a storyline that deftly charts the challenges of maintaining family traditions while at the same time striking out to follow the beat of their own drummer.

Our hero is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who lives in a small Mexican town with his extended family and dreams of one day being a famous musician like his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), whose songs and movies are still revered by his former countrymen decades after dying in a bizarre (but very funny) accident in the middle of a performance. The problem for Miguel is that several generations earlier, his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and young daughter Coco to pursue his own dreams of musical stardom. Ever since then, Miguel’s family has had a total ban on all forms of music—one relentlessly enforced by his grandmother()—and have dedicated their lives to the shoemaking trade that they now expect him to pursue as well. Miguel cannot abide by this and while his family prepares for the annual Day of the Dead celebration designed to offer remembrances of those who have passed on to the next world, he slips off in the hopes of playing in a local talent competition.

Thanks to a freak accident, Miguel finds that he has somehow managed to pass over into the Land of the Dead himself and has only 24 hours to seek out his dead relatives and receive their blessings in order to return home or he will be stuck there permanently. He finds his relatives easily enough but when they insist that he vow to give up music forever in exchange for those blessings, he instead runs off in order to seek out Ernesto, whom he believes was that infamous great-great-grandfather and who would certainly give him his blessings to return home without extracting any pledges to give up music as part of the deal. To help find Ernesto, Miguel enlists the aid of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a skeezy con man who lets Miguel in on the darkest aspect of the Land of the Dead—if there is no one left in the living world who remembers you, you essentially die another death by fading into nothing—and who offers to help him if he agrees to display a photograph of him in the hopes that it will help him stick around.

In many ways, “Coco” is par for the course for Pixar. From a visual standpoint, it has, despite the darkness of the subject matter, a bright and vibrant style—this one inspired by Mexican art—that is never less than fascinating to look at. While it is not a musical per se, there are a number of catchy songs throughout with Ernesto’s classic “Remember Me” turning up in a number of different styles and contexts, including a climactic one that may inspire even the most cynical of moviegoers to discover moist bits of salty discharge emanating from their eyeballs. The vocal casting is also pretty inspired as well—once again, instead of simply casting the most popular actors around to voice the characters as a way of attracting attention, Pixar has instead elected to find the right people for the role. And like the best Pixar films, “Coco” finds a way to grapple with themes and ideas that might seem to be a bit advanced for younger viewers in ways that they can easily grasp and understand. Here, through Miguel’s conflict with his family regarding music, we get a smart articulation of that sensation that most people go through around his age regarding the conflict between family tradition and being your own person and how a healthy balance between the two is ultimately for the best. The film also tackles the subject of death by stressing the importance of remembering those who have passed on so that the memories of them do not disappear along with their physical beings. (That said, since “Coco” does feature a cast that is largely made up of skeletons—none particularly scary, but still—parents of especially young or sensitive children may want to think twice about taking them to see it.)

Where “Coco” does break from Pixar’s past, in a good way, is from a cultural perspective. Although I don’t think that it was done entirely intentionally, the fact of the matter is that when Pixar has dealt with human worlds and characters, they have tended to be almost exclusively of the WASP variety. This time around, they are telling a story that is steeped in all aspects of Hispanic culture, ranging from music and art to cultural traditions, and it gives the film an unexpected jolt of life and energy. (At one key point, the day is save for Miguel by none other than Frida Kahlo herself and while there is no specific reason as to why it has to be the famed artist, her inclusion into the proceedings manages to be completely respectable while at the same time scoring some of the biggest laughs.) Hispanic audiences will doubtlessly be overjoyed to see their unique heritage represented in such an entertaining and respectful manner while non-Hispanic kids will get a glimpse of a culture and history that they may well know nothing about and perhaps get a sense of the great wide world that is out there.


The only trouble with “Coco” is that the screenplay has a couple of rough spots here and there, even if you can work around the plot device that Miguel’s family has managed to avoid all forms of music for so many generations. The method by which Miguel is able to transfer over to the Land of the Dead is not explained very well and while the details ultimately do not matter very much in that regard, try telling that to the little kids who will be clamoring for answers after the film. More troubling is the way that the plot begins to get bogged down a bit in the late innings as so many shocking secrets are suddenly revealed that the narrative almost makes “Chinatown” seem streamlined by comparison. Ultimately, these hiccups do not matter much because, for the most part, “Coco” works beautifully, both as a top-notch animated entertainment (especially in a year where such things have been few and far between) and as an exploration of a culture that has too often received the short shrift on the big screen

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