At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Coco

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Animated Fantasy/ Voices of: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Selene Luna, Dyana Ortellí, Herbert Sigüenza, Jaime Camil, Sofía Espinosa, Luis Valdez, Lombardo Boyar, Octavio Solis, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Salvador Reyes, John Ratzenberger/ Runtime: 105 minutes

I feel it must be said that following a double-header of sequels that were entertaining, but still to some degree missing that particular spark that Pixar is truly known for bringing to their films, they have now returned to the creation of animated movies that come attached with a story that no one has ever told before, but that has themes that are universal. However if you were worried that Pixar was starting to lose their magic, I can honestly tell you that is most certainly not the case. Indeed that is because Coco, their latest, is plain and simply a gorgeously designed and quite emotionally potent story regarding the powers of music, pursuing one’s dreams in life as well as just how crucial family can be in a person’s life. Indeed with the help of a talented cast and a top-notch animation team the resulting ingredients all manage to blend together to create a film that is most assuredly something that you, your family, and all the other special people in your life will want to watch and cherish together time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Coco takes us to the country of Mexico, and introduces us to a young boy living there with his extended family by the name of Miguel who, as long as he can remember, has always dreamed of being a musician like his idol Ernesto de La Cruz (think Douglas Fairbanks for the telenovela crowd). There’s only one little problem however with Miguel and his dream for his life. That proverbial dilemma takes the form of the fact that a long, long time ago Miguel’s great-great grandmother completely eradicated music from ever being a part of her life or the family’s after her husband left her to go and become a musician himself, but he never returned home. Since then, the immense dislike for music has been traditionally been kept up by the family thus leaving Miguel no choice, but to keep his dreams to himself. That is until, one day, Miguel decides, after some encouragement from a Ernesto de La Cruz movie, to go after his passions by taking part in a local contest on a holiday known as Dia de los Muertos which is where people of Mexican or Hispanic heritage all take the day to honor and reminisce about the family members that came before to thank them for their contributions while they were alive on Earth. Sadly however, Miguel’s abuela learns of his intentions, and during a tirade, takes his precious guitar and destroys it in front of him. Devastated, Miguel, along with his loyal dog Dante, runs away and endeavors to take the guitar that belonged to Ernesto since he was from the same town as Miguel, and whose crypt is in the town cemetery. However the moment he strums the guitar, Miguel finds himself whisked away to the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased family members, but soon learns that by entering the Land of the Dead he is quickly becoming a skeleton himself. However with even his departed family unwilling to help him unless he gives up his musical dreams, Miguel, with the help of a charming trickster named Hector, sets out on a quest: not only to find Ernesto who Miguel believes is his long-lost family member and the only one who could possibly understand him, but to also find a way back home before he’s stuck in the Land of the Dead forever…..

Now in case it wasn’t obvious, that is quite the lengthy plot description, and to be honest this is a movie that does take a while to get off the ground and it’s that reason which is why, even at 15 minutes shy of 2 hours, this feels like one of the more lengthy animated films that you could choose to watch. However, with that being said I do find it quite conflicting to gripe about this movie making that decision. That is because, as stated previously, the theme of family is extremely crucial to the narrative that the film is attempting to tell us. Thus, in order to tell it properly and for any of the events that happen in the movie to have any meaning, you have to spend time with the main character’s family. However, when the narrative ball finally does manage to get rolling, I promise you that you will most likely get caught up in it, and enjoy the ride as it does to go to extraordinary places and you, along with Miguel, do meet some intriguing individuals to say the least. Indeed among the cast of characters however, there are those who stand out amongst the rest. These include Dante the dog who is as entertaining of an animal companion as animated films has ever thought to give us, Hector who is a trickster that Miguel runs into in the Land of the Dead and is subsequently recruited to help him get to Ernesto so he can return home is also extremely entertaining, and also a joy to hear sing. Indeed he and Miguel also have a wonderful rapport that really makes their scenes together that much more memorable. There is also Ernesto himself, played with swagger and charm by Benjamin Bratt from Miss Congeniality and Doctor Strange, and he is an intriguing character because…..well let’s just say there is more to him than meets the eye, but Bratt manages to make every facet of this character work right down to the ego because even in Death, Ernesto still sees himself as quite a big deal….as does everyone else. Finally I also thought Anthony Gonzalez as the voice of lead character Miguel also did a fantastic job. Indeed this may be yet another Disney hero who is saddled with the old narrative trope known as “kid who has parents who simply do not understand them”, but I still feel that Miguel has enough personality and characterization to him that he doesn’t wind up becoming a walking narrative cliché and nothing more.

Now while this film is most certainly not a musical per se under what you might typically think of as a musical especially where Disney is concerned, I still feel it must be said that music is definitely a more significant aspect of this particular film than in any other film released by Pixar so far due in no small part to the main character’s love of it, as well as for reasons unknown at least at the start, that his abuela and the rest of the family frown upon it despite it being a key part of their heritage. To that end, Pixar brought onboard a woman by the name of Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who also helped contribute to the soundtrack for Frozen poor woman, to help write this movie’s soundtrack. Indeed although the fact that this movie’s Mexican culture-tinged roots results in the movie’s songs sounding absolutely nothing like Let It Go, thank God, they are also very culturally appropriate, quite catchy in their own right, and even beautifully sung to the point that I think that you will not only come to love them as well, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the ensuing days humming the music from this movie whenever you get the opportunity.

Now by this point in their long and storied history, I do feel that making the statement that the animation in this, or any of Pixar’s movies for that matter, is absolutely stunning in all the best ways really does feel like a moot point. With that being said though Coco most certainly is a truly majestical feast for the eyes to behold especially after the movie shifts the action over to the Land of the Dead since it is extremely vibrant and full of color and, pardon the pun, life that you literally will find yourself wanting to explore more of this extraordinary world rather than see the narrative in process continue. However I definitely feel that, in regards to the animation, I think particular praise needs to be handed to the design team behind the alebrejas which are spirit guides/ guardians that consist of several animals blended together to form a unique critter all its own. Indeed it really is delightful to see a culture that doesn’t get half as much attention as it truly deserves finally be given a significant platform, courtesy of an animation powerhouse like Pixar no less. Indeed while the majority of people, unless you live in Texas, most likely do not know a whole lot about the iconic holiday that is Dia de Los Muertos, and some creative licensing is most definitely taken with the background of the holiday itself, the enthusiasm and respect that Pixar manages to come to this material with is most definitely apparent and highly respectable.

Now even though Coco is a film that kids will most certainly take delight in and cherish, I also feel you should know that this is a quite mature story that might not be suitable for young ones under the age of say 7 or 8. Now to be fair, movies that have been made by Pixar have never been ones to shy away from quite adult concepts, and when you make a film that does tie in the concept of relatives and loved ones who have passed away really isn’t going to cut any corners in approaching the topic head on. With that knowledge in mind though, Coco decides to kick things up a notch by giving audiences what is most likely the darkest twist in a family film in quite a while to the point that even this reviewer was left shocked, and that usually doesn’t happen movie lovers trust me. Now even though this is not by any stretch the only occasion the movie chooses to try and surprise its audience, this is the only time where the surprise is completely out of left field. I say that because as for the other “curve in the road”, it is one that even though kids might not see it coming, audiences will, or at least should, be able to see it telegraphed way in advance…..though it still is quite emotional. Thus trust me when I say that, like Pixar films of yore, Coco is going to leave you emotional and if you are the kind of person who cries during movies then that is almost certainly going to go down during this movie so make sure you have tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

All in all make no mistake about it: Coco is not a perfect film yet that is perfectly ok. That’s because ultimately what this film does turn out to be is a through and through treat and joy to watch be it by yourself or with those you love. Indeed, thanks to amazing work from a talented cast as well as a top-notch animation team, Coco plain and simply is a beautiful reminder that to show the world that Pixar, despite some missteps, is still just as engaging as ever when it makes the decision to conquer a new mountain of a narrative compared to a lot of the animation studios that, as of late, just keep putting out what has worked before. On a scale of 1-5 I give Coco a solid 4.5 out of 5.