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Coco (2017) by Disney Pixar, dir: Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina

El Día de los Muertos

In Pixar’s latest animation is set during the El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival in Mexico, an annual event where the living honour their ancestors. Anthony Gonzalez provides the voice of Miguel, a boy living in a small town who dreams of following in the footsteps of both his long-dead great-great-grandfather and his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, by becoming the musician. The problem is that this great-great-grandfather brought sorrow to the family by deserting them to follow his dreams. From that point onward they have steadfastly plied shoemaking as their trade and - up until Miguel - have vowed to have nothing to do with music. Indeed, they despise him so much that they have torn his face from his photograph on their altar, thus preventing him from revisiting them during the annual festival.

As part of the festivities a musicians’ competition is taking place in the town square. Miguel, who has been practicing guitar in secret from his family, is keen to participate. However, before he can do so, his own grandmother Abuelita (voiced by Renee Victor) smashes his guitar to stop him going down the same path as his ancestor. Miguel runs away in tears and desperately tries to borrow another guitar from someone in town. All hope is lost until he turns to the statue of Ernesto standing in the square and looks at the guitar it is holding. It is the same guitar which he saw in the picture of his great-great-grandfather! Ernesto must be him!

He hits upon the idea of entering his tomb and, figuring that his spirit will be happy for him to continue his legacy, attempts to “borrow” the guitar which hangs above his memorial plaque. However, his actions cause him to enter the Land of the Dead. He discovers from the various skeletal figures who inhabit this world that the only way for him to go back is for one of his ancestors to give him their blessing to return. Unfortunately, while he has no difficulty in locating members of his family on the other side, none of them are willing to do so unless he agrees not to pursue his dreams of being a musician. With that, the stubbornly persistent Miguel vows to seek out Ernesto himself with the help of a down-and-out musician named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) who has a favour to ask of him when he returns to the land of the living. IF he manages to return to the land of the living…

Watch a trailer:

Is it a return to form for Pixar?

Hands up if you sighed with disappointment at the very prospect of Pixar’s last venture, Cars 3. The CGI animation house’s least-loved franchise got yet another run around the monotonous NASCAR loop. Coco, however, has been heralded as something of a return to form for the studio as well as being a non-patronising, heartfelt look at one of the most beautiful central tenets of Catholic Mexican culture which went on to become the highest-grossing film in the country’s history. Is the general critical consensus (97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, 81% Metascore on Metacritic) correct? Well, broadly-speaking, yes.

The whole film bursts with warmth (both in its riotously celebratory colour palette and its empathy towards its characters) and artistic creativity. The film opens with a backstory narrative explaining the family turning its back on music in favour of shoemaking which is told via a series of still papel picado banners. When he reaches the Land of the Dead Pixar presents us with a vast, steampunk city-like world lavished with an incredible sense of scale and attention to charming details. The skeletal dead versions of the characters are filled with as much expressiveness as it is possible for skeletons to have.

Some of the ideas here have admittedly been seen before - in particular, in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (the afterlife bureaucracy bears an uncanny similarity) and The Corpse Bride (the admittedly still-hilarious skeleton jaw dropping to the floor gag is exhumed). However, these details are all quite naturally woven into a world that feels both coherent and real (despite the fact that, in the end, it’s based on superstition). One central tenet that when a person is forgotten they die a “final death”, banished from the Land of the Dead into nothingness, is a particularly poignant and resonant one. When we don’t honour our ancestors, our world becomes one poorer and emptier as a result.

Thoughtful and entertaining at once

Anthony Gonzalez voices Miguel in Coco

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a sombre meditation on the nature of life and death. As with the best Pixar films the underlying depth doesn’t preclude a film that can be enjoyed as simple escapism. The film builds up an inexorable, breathlessly-handled tension and suspense as Miguel’s quest reaches its conclusion. There is plenty of effective humour here, including a self-aware joke around one skeletal character being able to sneeze despite not having a nose and another using their forearm as impromptu nunchucks. The whole thing has plenty of zip and only rarely sags.

Aside from the occasional moments that fall too close to what we have already seen in the films of Tim Burton, Coco’s only real weak points are a couple of disappointingly bland songs. While they are only on screen for a brief time this is still a notable issue because one of them is central to the plot. Overall, however, Coco shows that Pixar still have much of that old magic left. I hope they stay away from more blasted Cars sequels and pour their considerable creative muscle into further works like this.

Runtime: 105 mins

Dir: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Script: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich

Voices: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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