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‘Coco’ Review: A Sweet Family Tale That Joins the Ranks of Pixar’s Best

Pixar’s latest charts a beautiful, emotional journey through the generations of a Mexican family.
By  · Published on November 20th, 2017

Pixar’s latest charts a beautiful, emotional journey through the generations of a Mexican family.

Some of Pixar’s finest animations honor the frequented storytelling tradition of generational gap: a young underdog stands his/her ground against an unsympathetic family and comes of age. From Finding Nemo to La Luna and Brave, several films from the studio’s distinguished catalog pull relatable emotional heartstrings with tales of adolescent small-timers struggling to assert their voices and prove their worth to their elders. Lee Unkrich, the director responsible for my favorite Pixar film (Toy Story 3), brings this beloved convention to life in the vivid and thoroughly entertaining Coco. With an original story by Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina (and a script penned by Aldrich and Molina), the big-hearted Coco joins the high ranks of Pixar’s best in telling the spirited tale of a resilient Mexican child’s poignant journey through family roots. As one would expect from an accomplished Pixar film, Coco will capture your heart and bring you to tears with an unforeseen twist in the end, despite its slightly overwritten final act.

We follow the young, energetic pre-teen Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzales), who lives in the village of Santa Cecilia and dreams of becoming a musician in the footsteps of his legendary idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But, in the words of the young Miguel, he is unfortunately cursed by a long-standing family principle that forbids music; a rule embraced by his ancestors after Miguel’s musician great-great-grandfather had abandoned his wife and daughter in search of fame and fortune. Since then, the family, led by a strong-willed great-great-grandmother, had built a successful shoe-making business (as efficiently told in Coco’s compact opening that summarizes this back-story.) But Miguel’s heart doesn’t belong to the craft of shoemaking. Hidden from his disapproving family, he secretly practices his music and finally gets the chance to display his talents on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, at a local talent contest.

But instead of the stage, he accidentally finds himself in the luridly designed Land of the Dead, where the deceased prepare to cross a bridge and visit their living family members, who commemorate them with wall-mounted photos during this annual celebration. Needing a deceased family member’s blessing to return to the world of the living, Miguel joins forces with an outcast: the frantic Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who has a quest of his own. Often mocked by his fellow skeletons for his desperate attempts to cross the bridge (despite having no family members that remember him), Hector agrees to guide Miguel in exchange of sending his photo to the other side.

In charting the joint mission of Miguel and Hector, Coco offers up a number of genuine shocks and surprises that are better preserved than revealed in reviews. The story, which celebrates familial love and steadily grows in complexity (sometimes, to a fault), takes the dazzled viewer through the wild alleys and corners of the Land of the Dead, realized with countless tasteful, intricate details. I can’t accurately speak to the cultural authenticity of Coco’s visuals (though a clue to their appropriateness is surely the film’s record-breaking box office success in Mexico), but I can certainly speak to its mesmerizing aesthetic, brought to life by production designer Harley Jessup. Easily among the most visually complex productions the studio has ever taken on (along with Wall-E and Inside Out), Coco tastefully renders echoes of live-action wonders like The Fifth Element, Minority Report, and Moulin Rouge. Within regards to its slightly over-plotted story, don’t be surprised if you end up thinking about Back to the Future Parts I & II frequently. After all, this is a film about reckoning with family history, in which Miguel’s pursuit of Hector’s photo gives Marty McFly’s chase of the Sports Almanac a run for its money.

Consistently delightful, Coco dares to pull the rug from under the young viewers a number of times. To that end, it’s thankfully among the works of Pixar that don’t talk down to children. Instead, Unkrich refreshingly trusts their emotional intelligence and perhaps indirectly advances their maturity as a result. Filled with sincere life lessons (some of them, openly catered towards adults), Coco doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to putting a few scares on the screen. While it could have been leaner, it still belongs to Pixar’s elite class with a sweet, sophisticated family tale that knocks down imaginary walls between generations (and cultures) with dignity.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.