First off: A very Merry Christmas to all my readers on this blog! It’s been a wonderful first year of writing and what better way to mark the joy of the season with something I haven’t attempted yet – a movie review! The season is definitely about a variety of wonderful things, starting with the birth of Christ, but it’s also strongly about family, and Pixar’s latest outing- Coco- is an excellent example of this time-treasured theme done beautifully. Also, for those who still may have not seen it, don’t worry: This is a spoiler-free review!
Studio/year: Pixar, 2017
“But, but AniB,” some might ask, “this movie is about the Day of the Dead! Dios de las Muertos! Not Christmas!” Not to worry; despite the overarching subject material of the movie, Coco is a great Christmas movie, but more importantly; it’s a great movie, no add-ons necessary. Over a month after its release into theaters, it was definitively worth the wait to see Pixar’s latest gem of a film- one that once again is likely to be popular on the awards circuit for 2018 and the company’s strongest outing since Inside Out two years prior at the time of this writing (2015).
Coco is a special film, without a doubt. The story follows the tale of young Miguel Rivera, an aspiring musician in a family of shoemakers for several generations. In turn, the family trade had spawned from the indomitable matriarch Mama Imelda Rivera, who (as it’s explained in the opening sequence), started the business after the untimely departure of her husband in pursuit of his musical career at the expense of their baby child (who that is, I’ll leave up to those who haven’t seen the film to find that out.) As a result, the Rivera family enforces a brutal ban on music, despite Miguel’s love of it, and his secret idolization of Mexico’s greatest, late musical legend- Ernesto de la Cruz. From there, the story’s events unfold on Dios De La Muertos– a tradition the Rivera family, like most in Mexico, hold quite dear to their hearts. From there, quite the adventure unfolds…
An inevitable comparison was made by people to Fox Animation’s Book of Life from 2014; after all, the lead characters in both tales (Miguel and Manolo) are aspiring musicians both looking to follow their dream instead of the family trades of shoemaking and bull-fighting respectively, all wrapped in a festive, enrapturing world of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. However, Coco proves to have a deeper emotional resonance than the latter movie, and is overall the superior film, particularly in its attention to detail, the depth of its characters and the impressive world and story building that occur simultaneously. There’s some impressive eye-candy that makes full use of the medium through the movie’s sequences, including one involving Mexican papels (colorful hanging papers) in the very first part of the film, and the vibrant world of the dead (which was broken down in detail in a neat little segment by Pixar folks pre-movie, including Lee Unkrich.)
Most importantly though, this film reminded me yet again why I love animation, because so often as the folks at Pixar seem to do, they give wide-ranging audiences a glimpse into what animation can be, rather than the childish notions many still hold about it. Coco holds the basic tenets of animation that go back to Steamboat Willie and Co., with plenty of exaggeration, humor and personality, but it also goes about it in a genuinely human way that builds a cohesive story, excellent characterization, and emotional stakes that all too often, animated movies from other studios and outfits (particularly in the West) seem to forget. Prior to the film’s beginning, it was a stark contrast with some of the coming attractions that you tend to see when you peruse animated fare; there was fart jokes, a gnome movie that looked both unsavory and unlikely to change people’s conceptions of what animation can be (and featured one of the garden dwellers in a mankini, which was just awful); a pair of features from Laika and Aardman Animations that have some promise, but conceptually seem hard to get a great pulse on, and then the crown jewel of said previews: the widely-seen Incredibles 2 trailer (which I might add, the original is my personal favorite film of all time.) My viewing of Coco also avoided the widely complained about Frozen short that aired before the movie in its first two to three weeks of release; needless to say, I was quite relieved. Anyways, here’s my attempt on a grading basis for my first official animated movie review:
Animation Quality: 3-D animation. Being Pixar, this category is always superb quality and the best in the business for 3-D. The level of detail and craftsmanship in every shot, along with the detailed a vibrant character models breath life into an enrapturing world steeped in the culture of Mexico and the mythos of the Day of the Dead, all while creating a unique experience that also enhances the strong story backbone and the excellent soundtrack. 5/5 points.
Characterization: As mentioned, Miguel Rivera is the lead character; he’s a 12 year old boy who despite being stuck in a family who hates music for a very specific reason, aspires to not only be a musician, but chase his dreams like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. He’s a boy with big dreams, but increasingly finds his love for his family at a crossroads with his deeply held-musical convictions, a situation that finds itself at a head as the Day of the Dead comes…
The Rivera clan themselves are a great extended family that stretches several generations, including a number of dead relatives who are remembered religiously, with the exception of Mama Imelda’s wandering musician husband. Just who could that man be?…
Speaking of questions, you might be wondering: Just who is Coco? The titular character of the movie is someone very important to Miguel and pivotal in an unforeseen way; for the sake of not spoiling events, this character is very surprising how they factor into the film. (Those who have seen the film- you know.)
Finally, Miguel has a de-facto sort of pet, a hairless street dog named Dante. Eternally happy with a big sloppy pink tongue hanging out of his mouth and always hungry, Dante is a loyal companion, though a bit slow on the uptake.
The emotional stakes and character development in such a contained amount of time is very satisfying and well-done. Much of this focuses on Miguel, and [spoiler], another certain someone he meets in his travels who’s down on his luck, but it’s wonderful to watch and experience first-hand. 5/5 points.
Story quality: As expected of a movie, Coco is a wonderfully engaging story, but as is Pixar’s hallmark, avoids the pitfall of cheap, low-brow humor in favor of a tightly paced narrative that also doubles as a musical with the excellent score that was composed (more on that in a bit). The story itself has a wonderful ethnic flair, and seamlessly transitions from part to part in the film for a cohesive well-crafted story. Most importantly though, the emotional core of this film, which I keep coming back to, is absolutely stunning, and must be seen for itself. 5/5 points.
Themes: Mi famila, mi familia, mi familia! Yes, family is one of the most time-worn themes out there, but this film nails that aspect beautifully by sculpting the film’s actual story around just how deeply that tie can run. It never gets old to see family done right in a film, and the specific way in which this idea is achieved is truly unique. Aside from that, there’s a undertow about while it’s worth following your dreams, and perhaps “seizing the moment!” as Ernesto de la Cruz puts it, it’s also fair to question one’s morality in how far they will go to achieve such a vision… A solid, solid execution of both these major ideas rest in Coco though, and that’s extremely satisfying. 4.25/5 points.
Don’t insult the viewer: Coco’s a masterpiece. Truly, this is a beautiful movie for all the reasons I already listed, but one other truly outstanding aspect remains to be discussed: the score, composed by Michael Giancchino. This film is Pixar’s best when it comes to music, taking heavy influence from sister studio Disney in crafting an authentic Mexican flaired bevy of songs, which are both beautiful and catchy. (Also, what’s a movie set in Mexico without guitars and mariachi? The answer: a sad film.) 5/5 points.
Total: 24.25/25 (97%). Coco is a triumph of animated film yet again from the folks at Pixar, with deeply cohesive storytelling that bears a true emotional core. This film is definitely for everyone- but in the kind of way that will deeply resonate at the heartstrings in any age. It’s definitely a must watch.
Merry Christmas! Like what you see? Chat about Coco in the comments!