I’m not sure if I were feeling particularly weak in the theatre yesterday. There was not a single point throughout Coco that I was not either laughing or crying. Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina’s film flies straight towards the top of the Pixar canon. It’s at least their first one that approaches a non-American culture with anything approaching tact. We get a borked Paris in Ratatouille and a huge variety of dumbass stereotypes in Cars 2 but aside from that, while the level of specificity can vary, they’ve never ventured far outside themselves.
You can tell they’ve been learning by the stories that have been reported during production. About how the lead was originally a white kid before someone told them that it felt a bit rum, and about how they tried to trademark the phrase Día de los Muertos before people let them know that maybe that was a shitty thing to do. Even Molina’s mid production promotion to co-director seemed like a tacit acknowledgement that even with a huge amount of filmmaking experience, maybe an outsider just can’t paint this story alone.
The culmination of that, I guess, is that what strikes you immediately is the film’s specificity. We open on Miguel, a boy with a passion for music, born unfortunately to a family who treat it with disdain. Even before a mishap involving the tomb of a legendary musician leaves him stuck in the Land of the Dead struggling to find a way back home before the sun rises and he’s trapped there forever, the town he lives in and the characters he meets feel immediate in a way that Pixar rarely manages.
But yes, after running away from his music hating family, ya boy Miguel is spirted away. The Land of the Dead created by Pixar here is a wonderful creation, floating stacks of colourful abodes stretching off into the distance, plazas float by transit stations and skyscrapers, our lead traverses it as a fairground or a dream, always another ladder or alleyway to lead somewhere incongruous and spectacular. In amongst the whimsy though a point is being made, this afterlife reflects and even magnifies the problems of the living world.
In order to escape Miguel befriends a charming hustler called Héctor. This skeleton dude needs a living person to remember him so that he can travel across to the land of the living to see his descendants. Héctor has the insider knowledge of this place and Miguel has that fleshy human body that can honour his memory in the real world. They’re your classic odd couple.
A moment to talk about the voice acting. It is uniformly great. The team made the choice of casting entire film with Latin American actors and actors of Latin American descent. Again, it’s something that shouldn’t need to be huge, but given how shitty Hollywood tends to be about these things you can feel the weight of the choice, especially when you compare it to the bland faux Spain we saw last month in Ferdinand.
Imma single out and give huge props to the voice actors for our central duo, the young Anthony Gonzalez being Miguel and the great Gail García Bernal as Héctor. They are tender and human and so funny, and the singing performances they give are totally wonderful. The songs are a whole thing too, mariachi and Mexican big band music aren’t really taken seriously in our culture. The choice to ground the film in this very earnest, classical musical form is the right one. You can feel aching hearts in the mix.
It seems almost reductive now to comment on how good a Pixar film looks, but oh my God, everything in this film. The design of the skeletal dead; their immaculate costuming; the way they move, disassembling and reassembling themselves. The multicoloured Alebrijes, colourful, comical, and sinister. Even in the land of the living there’s all these light comic details, so many delightful gags landing every minute.
It’s a film full of joy, soul and heart. I seriously loved it. I don’t even know if it felt like it was speaking directly to me. Sure, there’s things there to relate to but it’s not like an Inside Out that feels designed to make me fall in love. It’s a supreme piece of craft, a miracle about passion and pain. It’s about family.
There’s so much to love in here, it’s impossible that anyone won’t find something to like. It’s often tempting to leave animated films, or kiddie fare in general for the home release. Don’t now. Watch this in a nice cinema and be transported.
We don’t even have to sit through that shitty 20 minute Frozen short either, bonus!