Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Running time: 105 mins
Ratings: IMDB 8.4 (IMDB score is weighted average of audience scores out of 10)
Rotten Tomatoes 97% (Rotten Tomatoes score is % of professional critic reviews that are positive)
Awards: Two Oscars, one Golden Globe, one BAFTA
Being simultaneously life-affirming and death-obsessed is a tough act for any film to pull off, but Coco manages it. This might start bringing Pixar Studios back from the dead. I’d feared the worst from this movie’s Mexican Day of the Dead trope, expecting a tiresome parade of sub-Halloweeny horror masks under a sombrero of cliches. Actually, it’s an engaging and touching quest narrative, with some great spectacle, sweet musical numbers and on-point stuff about the permeability of national borders.
Coco is conceived on classic lines, certainly, but has that rarest of things in movies of any sort – a real third act and an interesting ending. It has something to say about memory and mortality and how we think about the awfully big adventure waiting for us all, which finally incubated an unexpectedly stubborn lump in my throat. This film has a potency that Pixar hasn’t had for a while, and for suppressed tears, the last five minutes of Coco might come to be compared to the opening montage of Up.
We find ourselves in Mexico, where a kid called Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) lives in a small town with his extended family, including his ancient great-grandmother Coco, who is poignantly on the verge of succumbing to dementia. Miguel dreams of being a musician such as the mega-celebrity singer Ernesto De La Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) who became a screen star and recording legend before being crushed to death by a falling bell in 1942. But, like Billy Elliot shoved into the boxing ring, Miguel is all set to join the family’s trade: making shoes.
The reason is that his folks have their own deeply internalised betrayal myth: Coco’s father was a vagabond musician who ran out on a young wife and infant daughter to chase his musical dreams. The family has sworn never to have anything to do with music and has even torn this man’s image from the family photograph: that vitally important image without which an ofrenda cannot be made for the Day of the Dead when the departed come back for a visit.
Miguel makes what he thinks is a sensational discovery: this disgraced ancestor was in fact the legendary lantern-jawed charmer Ernesto de la Cruz, and when a cosmic quirk of fate puts Miguel accidentally in the Land of the Dead, his mission is to make contact with De la Cruz and get his all-important blessing to return to the living world and pursue his musical destiny.
Of course, in the time-honoured style, Miguel needs a quirky/unreliable helpmeet for the journey and this is a deceased scallywag called Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal) whose body has a habit of collapsing and reforming with a xylophone clatter. As with all the comic wingmen in this kind of film, Héctor is a mix of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.
In the real world, the Day of the Dead, with its endlessly Instagrammable images, is danger of becoming the west’s condescending gap-year obsession. Coco – which can be compared to the Guillermo del Toro-produced movie The Book of Life – takes a particular line on this phenomenon: that it is an empowering, family-friendly folk myth that puts us in touch with our heritage.
Another way of thinking about it is that it’s a raucous, satirically challenging and deliberately transgressive tradition that glories in the physical intractability of death and thereby mocks the pretensions of powerful but all-too-mortal rulers: which is, incidentally, the tradition that Eisenstein responded to for his unrealised Mexico film Que Viva Mexico!
Well, that is not what Coco is about; it is more emollient. Perhaps like Orpheus with his lyre, Miguel’s way with a guitar will get him back to the world of life and the world of music, without which, of course, a living death is all he has to look forward to wherever he happens to be.
He, and we, absorb the news that the Land of the Dead is not the same as eternity. These vivified skeletons beyond the grave exist there only as long as someone back on Earth remembers them, which is why the photo piety of the domestic shrine is so important. It is a gigantic Valhalla of private and public celebrity. Oblivion means death and De la Cruz’s most famous song was called Remember Me. This is a charming and very memorable film.