It’s always a blessing when a new high-end Pixar film comes about, reminding us how good children’s animation can be in the hands of a studio that really cares. Coco, their non-sequel effort for 2017, is a tremendous step up from The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, and Cars 3 and easily the year’s best animated film – even matching the wonderful Paddington 2 in terms of sublime children’s entertainment. Already a record-breaking hit in Mexico, it’s deeply moving and visually stunning in the way that we always expect from Pixar, but also culturally important, with insightful looks into Mexican culture and tradition and an entirely Latinx cast.
As far as Pixar high-concepts go, Coco’s lands somewhere in the middle. Taking place during Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, the one day of the year where the dead can pass back to the world of the living, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s story sees young aspiring guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) run away from his music-hating family and get stuck in the Land of the Dead. To make his way back to the living, he has to find his great-great grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Mexico’s most beloved ever musician, to bless him and allow him to cross back over.
Of course, there’s a lot more going on than just this journey, but to hit on any further plot beats would enter into dangerous spoiler territory for a film that is often joyously surprising. Family and legacy, and whether one has to be sacrificed at the altar of the other, are the themes that Unkrich, Molina, and their co-writers Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich are most concerned with. They make relatively familiar territory for Pixar, though the relationship between the two is rarely explored this deeply. Where Coco breaks new ground for the studio is in it focus on the power of music, and there are some really fantastic ballads here, even if Ernesto’s songs don’t always stack up to those of the film’s supposedly lesser deceased musicians.
One of these musicians is wily vagabond Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel’s main helper during his quest and the beating heart of the whole story. Coco leans hard into weepiness in its final third, earning all of its emotion and leaving no dry eyes in the house. It’s a powerhouse ending that washes away some of the plotting problems that hinder the earlier film. Everything happens at a rather manic pace, some story developments tripping over themselves in the hurry to set up the truly delightful and heartfelt finale.
These issues hardly come close to breaking the film but, alongside a surprising scarcity of great jokes, keep Coco just out of reach of the all-time great Pixar pantheon. There are big laughs, but they’re almost exclusively earned by Miguel’s brilliantly moronic dog Dante, perfectly animated and so springy that he may as well be made of elastic. Amazingly, Coco entirely resists the temptation to go for ‘dog chasing skeleton bones’ jokes in the Land of the Dead, though the skeletal denizens of the mystical city do spend a lot of their time shattering into a thousand pieces and putting themselves back together again.
Like with Dante, the fluidity and precision of the animation in these sequences remains stunning, and Pixar’s unrivalled skill in this field should never be taken for granted. Not only are the characters fully realised and genuinely weighty as they charge and tumble through the settings, but the Land of the Dead itself is just jaw-dropping. Every element of Mexican myth and legend can be spotted in the city, full of sparklingly bright colours and impossible architecture that blends the traditional with fantasy and retro-futurism. The denizens of the city are also miracles of design, always distinguishable from one another despite being just bones in outfits.
A deep appreciation of Mexican history and mythos is evident in every frame, whether it’s the Aztec and Mayan influences subtly tucked away, the multi-coloured Alebrijes (animal spirit guides), or a boldly surreal show put on by the spirit of Frida Kahlo. It never goes out of its way to be political, but in Trump’s America, a blockbuster family film that shows kids the thrilling vibrancy and musicality of Mexican culture is undoubtedly makes a difference.
Despite its young lead, Coco is one of Pixar’s slightly less young child friendly films, and in terms of true all ages appeal, Paddington 2 just pips it as 2017’s film for the whole family. But with some older kids or a purely teen/adult audience, it’s a magical experience, excellently voice acted and overloaded with feeling, ideas, and catchy songs.