More than half of the new Disney-Pixar animated film Coco takes place in the Land of the Dead, which despite its ominous-sounding name, is about as bright and colorful and lively as anything associated with the living, which underscores the film's message, drawn from Mexican traditions revolving around Da de Muertos ("Day of the Dead"), that the line between life and death is a thin one that not only can be, but should be, crossed.
The nominal hero, a 12-year-old aspiring musician named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), lives in a small Mexican village that still worships at the gilded feet of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a local-turned-internationally famous crooner who dominated both the airwaves and movie screens during his heyday in the 1930s and '40s. Alas, Miguel is not allowed to play music, listen to music, or be anywhere near the town square where the mariachis assemble because several generations ago his great-great grandfather left his great-great grandmother in pursuit of a musical career and never returned. Thus, music has come to symbolize the violation of la familia, and as a result it has been absolutely banned in Miguel's family lest the same temptation wreck another marriage in the lineage. This musical ban is upheld by Miguel's parents, although its strictest enforcer is Miguel's abuelita (Renee Victor), who loves Miguel with food and threatens life and limb of anyone who dares bring a single musical note within earshot of the family.
Miguel is propelled into the Land of the Dead when he breaks into Ernesto de la Cruz's crypt to steal his guitar to play in a music contest (I know, I know-that sounds morbid, but it doesn't play as such on screen). Once there, he gets to meet all the ancestors he knew only as faded black-and-white photographs on the family's ofrenda in comfortably rendered skeletal form that cleverly maintains their facial features with just bone and big round eyes-including Mam Imelda (Alanna Ubach), his great-great grandmother who still harbors intense resentment over her abandonment more than 100 years ago.
He also meets Hctor (Gael Garca Bernal), a wayward soul who is unable to pass over into the Land of the Living because his family has apparently forgotten him. Crossing over requires one's picture to be displayed on a family's ofrenda, and Hctor's family has either forgotten or abandoned him, which puts him in grave danger of being snuffed out from even the Land of the Dead because, once your memory is no longer held by at least one living soul, you're a second-time goner. To get back to the Land of the Living, Miguel must accept a blessing from Mam Imelda, but unfortunately it is contingent on his promising to never play music, something he can't quite bring himself to do, which is why he sets off to find Ernesto de la Cruz, who he comes to believe is the great-great grandfather that set off his family's hatred of music.
Directed by Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 3) and co-directed by former storyboard artist Adrian Molina, Coco is another of Pixar's visual marvels, weaving together fantastical imagery in ways that are both photorealistic and devoutly cartoonish. The film's vision of the Land of the Dead is a cascading vertical stack of houses and roads that glow and hum with a host of primary colors, like a child's massive block structure infused with a billion LED lamps. The film's conceptual art softens the potentially disturbing image of skeletal characters, infusing the dead characters with a vibrancy that at times makes you forget that they're, well, dead. Death in Coco isn't so much the end as it is simply a transference from one realm to another, with memory being the crucial bridge (the literal bridge between the lands of the living and the dead is composed entirely of Aztec marigold petals that glow when the dead walk across them and form a kind of quicksand for those, like Hctor, who are not allowed to cross over).
There is a lot to admire about Coco, particularly its energy and its story that attempts to find resolution between commitment to one's family and one's own sense of identity. It is not incidental either that the film features entirely Latino/a characters, virtually all of whom are voiced by Latino/a performers (the film, as some may remember, did not get off on the right foot when Disney ran into all kinds of trouble in their attempt to trademark the film's original title, Da de Muertos-an outrageous moment of cultural appropriation that would be like having a corporation try to own the word Christmas). At the same time, though, there is a great deal about Coco that is all too familiar from previous Pixar films, which is perhaps inevitable given that the studio has been producing feature films for nearly 25 years now. Certain story beats feel like they've been lifted from previous Pixar successes, whether it be the revelation that a seemingly kindly character is actually an outright villain, which rings of both Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), or Miguel's outsider-within-his-own-family status, which is Pixar's version of Disney's obsession with orphans (see 1998's A Bug's Life, 2003's Finding Nemo, 2007's Ratatoille, 2012's Brave, 2015's The Good Dinosaur, etc.). However, those similarities are only noticeable in hindsight, as Coco's colorfully entertaining spell largely hides whatever about it might feel familiar.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Disney / Pixar
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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