I spent half of Coco teary-eyed and there was this whirlwind of joy within me. Pixar’s still got that exceptional touch and its working on our hearts and minds in full force. It takes a smart combination of factors to truly set Coco apart as possibly an all-timer, prime among them the magical realism of the Mexican setting meshing with a simple but emotional and layered plot that will psychoanalyse children and adults alike.
Directed by Lee Unkrich Adrian Molina, Coco is the story of a 12-year old small town boy, Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) who wants to be a musician so bad. He has the passion and the talent on the guitar to take him there but talent and passion will only take you so far when you come from a family with a deep-seated resentment for anything music. There has been no sniff of any melody in the Rivera family for almost a century. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Imelda’s personal tragedy and heartbreak saw to that. His great-great-grandfather left home, abandoning Imelda and their child out of a seemingly selfish desire to achieve musical stardom.
Instead, the Riveras have established a tradition of shoe-making and Miguel is to stick with the programme. Our young hero’s heart is in the right place despite him trying to buck the family mores. He is a stan for Mexico’s “greatest musician” from the 1930s, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who you could say died doing what he loved as he was crushed by a giant bell whilst performing. Miguel wishes to walk in Ernesto de la Cruz’s footsteps and break off the shackles of his small town and family to become a renowned musician. He is yet to fully understand the rift that music represents in his family despite the ever-present suffocating cautions.
Family vs passion is a well-worn motif in storytelling and real life because of its truth and simplicity. Being an adult means I start to over think the simple and construct metaphors where there probably aren’t – like making this about a kid in the closet (sometimes literally). But Coco slowly transitions into a deep film about not just family but legacy and memory. To keep the experience fresh for you as it was for me, I’ll just say Miguel traverses to the other side where the skeletal dead seem to be having quite the afterlife. It’s an entrancing necropolis with a Burton-esque feel and dazzling colours, especially the sprinkles of neon greens and blues and streaks of strong carroty orange that had me thinking of Doritos in theatre.
No worries. The rules for the plot developments are well explained and consistent with infantile exuberance and angst of Miguel whilst anchored firmly in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Miguel’s adventure in the land of the dead literally becomes one of life and death as he begins to resemble this world the longer he stays in there, thus putting a timer on affairs and introducing stakes. The more things change, the more they stay same. Miguel’s dead relatives hound him because of his love for music as he comes face to face with the root of his adolescent angst. We get to meet the Rivera matriarch, Imelda (Alanna Ubach) who is stern and as imposing as her giant flying tiger-ish spirit animal and she is definitely more uncompromising than her descendants in the real world.
For a film with so much energy and extremely kinetic, the moments of stillness serve as the pathway to numerous questions. Coco really bores down an old black and white picture of Imelda, her daughter and her husband, only, the husband’s face has been ripped off. Miguel has no idea who he is except that he loved music and chose it over family. Part of his adventure in the land of the dead will see him try to, for the first time, hear from the other side of this family rift, as he tries to find his great-great-granddad and hopefully some validation.
The idea of a picture and what it represents is a conduit for moments of tremendous poignancy in Coco. Pictures are the currency for dead and provide solace for the living. The film is almost a rebuke for those of us who do not take family seriously. We have here an argument in favour of legacy as a hallowed construct and it tugs at our heartstrings with its message. The stand out scene in this regard, the one that opened the waterworks, sees Miguel and the rascally, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who he teams up with, meet an old rugged head, seemingly ailing, and music takes centre stage here, capturing the essence of the film, highlighting the overwhelming sadness that underpins this film and conveying fears that extend to the real world.
Song-wise, the stand out is sure to be, Remember Me. Mariachi music may not be my thing but the penetrating lyrics of the soundtrack just sear into your spirit and hit you with the full force of the film’s themes. The title character of the film is Miguel’s great-grandmother, still alive mind you, who is also a fixture in the picture that encapsulates this film. Coco is old and frail and still haunted by the non-return of her father. There is a moment with her that recalls the bible story, where David offers some reprieve to King Saul with music from his harp. Music is just as powerful here.
Pixar is great again. The crisp animations and humour, we expect. The warm story, bundles of heart, droves of imagination and a willingness to explore a whole new culture provide the juices that make this film unforgettable.