Ebullient "Coco" Is Pixar's Best Film In A Decade

The Día de Muertos-themed “Coco” is Pixar Animation Studios’ nineteenth feature in twenty-two years and an increasingly rare original film from a studio that’s recently put a premium on sequels. That it comes on the heels of the tepid “Cars 3” doesn’t hurt its prospects for audience rejuvenation, but “Coco” is an amazing movie in its own right. Built on themes similar to that of sister studio Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 2016 release “Moana,” it illustrates large concepts like familial fate, the impermanence of legacy, and the hereditary hurdles we all face, packaged in one eye-popping, hugely accessible family film.

It borders on the miraculous.

Miguel Rivera, voiced by Anthony Gonzalez, is Mexican pre-teen with huge musical ambitions – to the great chagrin of his family. Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a singer-songwriter who skated out on his wife and children in favor of fame and fortune, a scar that’s been passed down from generation to generation. The result: a household disdainful of all things musical. Miguel’s grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) is the resident enforcer, forbidding her grandson from entering a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) talent show, chastising him at every mention of his dream. Only Miguel’s kindly great grandmother Coco, the daughter of the aforementioned family pariah, receives her great grandson’s aspirations with a smile.

Screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich skillfully parlay their Day of the Dead backdrop into an adventure of self-discovery for Miguel. On the hunt for what he believes to be his great-great grandfather’s guitar – that of the late superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) – our hero finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, where he connects with deceased family members. (Unsurprisingly, they too disapprove of his passion). He also befriends a lonesome dead man named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who’s desperate to return to the Land of the Living. Except, Héctor’s last living family member has neglected to put his picture up on her ofrenda – the key to the departed being allowed to return home on Día de Muertos.

The Land of the Dead and its skeletal inhabitants are gorgeously animated, at once impossibly ornate and easy to follow onscreen. Director Lee Unkrich and co-director Molina make this narrative and visual mix of the terrestrial and the supernatural cohere stunningly. Nothing feels contrived or at odds with itself, a tribute to both the indigenous customs that comprise the heart of the film and the impeccable work done by everyone involved – especially the animators. This is by far Pixar’s best looking film to date, brimming with indelible imagery, each frame sun-kissed and sparkling.

Also remarkable for a major animated film: the voice cast doesn’t depend on A-list celebrities over skilled voice actors. There are movie stars among the cast but they sound studied and appropriately cast, adding considerably to the feeling of immersion. Center stage is ceded to the characters and the technicolor visuals that surround them; no warmed over celebrity voices to get in the way.

If “Coco” is missing the immediately iconic, sweeping songs of “Moana,” it contains one pretty good song (“Remember Me”) and enough spirited compositions to justify its musical bent. This is a great, lively film defined not only by the joy inherent in music, but by a pervasive love for human beings, imperfections and all. In its unforgettable juxtaposition between life and death, elation and grief, the film unlocks a spirituality rarely found in film, let alone animated fare. The lofty heights of “Toy Story” might be out of reach, but “Coco” isn’t far removed from Pixar’s halcyon days. And it’s their best film since 2007’s “Ratatouille.” Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 22, 2017
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenwriters: Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Jaime Camil, Sofia Espinosa, Luis Valdez, Lombardo Boyar, Edward James Olmos, Alanna Ubach, Selena Luna
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements)