A new animation from Pixar is always an occasion to consider a night at the cinema rather than a repeat drama or a soap on the goggle box. Only two things make you hesitate – if aimed at kids will your ears be assailed by chomping, squeals and cries? And you temper enthusiasm with the knowledge the company is owned by Disney. Pixar isn’t the free wind, go with your instinct, do as you please company it used to be. It has merchandising to think about, and a strict brand set of ethics to follow.
What comes out the Disney factory can be shallow entertainment, or with luck, art. I can report this Pixar is a fine piece of work, the kids around me completely absorbed in it.
Pixar’s latest animation is a whirlwind of an extravaganza, a riot of Mexican music and culture. As soon as you take in its clever opening credits you know it’s aimed at the Latino market, the people who made Mel Gibson a very wealthy man by seeing The Passion (2004) an average seven times each.
Coco is already a huge hit in Mexico where it had the biggest opening in history at almost $50 million USD. Coco took first place at the box office in North America, (Latinos run California! It was their land once) and the guesstimate is the film will gross over £300 million in that territory alone. The budget is recorded close to $200 million.
The plot of Coco exploits the age-old Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead – a wonderful celebration of family and ancestors that involves music, dancing, drinking, and more music, the exact opposite of the grey-black funereal tradition we offer to loved ones who have passed away.
It begins with a house shrine to forefathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, the lighting of candles, and the spreading of flower petals in the street to guide the dead to the shrine. Día de Muertos is the opposite of our remembrance. This is all about life.
All of the characters are Mexican, (I think) even the flea ridden friendly street mutt befriended by the main character, a young boy desperately keen to become a mariachi, a travelling musician. Why it has taken so long for Hollywood studios to do more than cast one or two Mexicans in a film and not create one wholly about them and for them is a mystery. Normally they are the pantomime sidekick, the women of easy virtue, or villains attacking The Alamo or riding behind Pancho Villa, or Emiliano Zapata, played by a Hollywood star coated in swarthy makeup.
Students of Mexican cinema will know that nation has an illustrious history of filmmaking that guarantees a mass audience, and a faithful one. If Pedro Armendáriz was good enough to play 007’s Istanbul contact in From Russia With Love, (1963) he was good enough to start in a Hollywood movie. So, this is a welcome first for a major studio animated release, and its arrival should be cheered on that basis alone.
Like all good children’s stories there’s a disappointment, a mystery, a challenge, a quest, a journey, and a discovery and awakening.
The setting is a town in small rural village somewhere in Mexico. 12-year-old Miguel Rivera, (Anthony Gonzalez), dreams of being a musician, playing the guitar like a master, composing his own songs, and finding a place in society that is worthwhile. (For once the animators have not followed fashion and chosen to make the central character female.) But Miguel is frustrated by his family’s baffling dislike of live music, not just traditional Mexican. He is not allowed to hear it nor play it, and yet the boy has pronounced musical talent. In secret he admires a great Mexican songsmith and longs to be like him.
To achieve his goal he inadvertently invades the world of the dead, the happy mid-way to Heaven where generations of the dead live as if still alive, in a carbon copy of homes, cities, transportation, but all in their dead state, skeletons, a predicament they remain in until their family forget them or die away. At that point they die one last time … and reach that great taco and guacamole in the sky.
However, while in mid-way Heaven they are allowed to visit their still-alive families for the Day of the Dead – unseen obviously – so long as their family hold them in genuine remembrance.
The cast are all terrific, each character old and young is given a distinct character. In fact, I can’t think of a Pixar animation where the main characters are all human, and not action men, toys, automatons, or cars. The animation is infused with a love of life, and this also permeates the world of the dead.
I have enjoyed all of Pixar’s creations but this is the first that squeezed some tears out of me over the last sequence. Being the macho type, I fought the emotion as hard as I could but it got to me in the end. Coco is a Dia de los Muertos holiday of a movie, a fiesta featuring wacky skulls, bone dances, and Busby Berkley moments, a riot of fireworks, (how do they do that?) and sing-alongs as an aid to help laugh in the death’s face.
This is a film dealing with familial loss, tragic life changes, melancholic regrets. Call it a gentle lesson for children (and us) to understand death is inevitable, it happens to all living things, and how mid-life brings a punch that warns our faculties and strength begin to ebb. It also says loudly, life is for living, and family for protecting. It avoids getting trapped in morbidity, or sentimental longing, a difficult feat to pull off when you’re soppy Disney illustrating profound loss.
Coco is a complex story to convey to innocent minds. Death is at its centre, of course, but this certainty can be just as easily conveyed to a child by the death of pet animal, or road kill. More interestingly, it adds fear of letting ourselves and our families down, and learning to live with failure. I’m not sure how much those qualities are accessible to young minds not yet learned sarcasm, but it reminds adults how we overcome fears and failures so we can live our lives with some meaning.
There is also the sorrow of abandonment – a truism for almost every family on the planet – the sorrow of facing our autumn years full of loss and regret, the sorrow of lost ambition, lost friends, apologies never given to those we wronged, lives cut short with so much left undone, and the mercy of forgiveness and acceptance.
Oh, and it’s also very funny at the right moments, laugh-out-loud funny, and just as humorous when it’s sad and poignant, a jokey celebration of mortality.
As in all good children’s stories the young hero must brave the unknown, escape danger, and learn how to be a better person. When I returned home to compose this review I typed listening to life affirming Latin classical music conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It brought forth the people I remember who shaped my adulthood, and the ones I hope will remember me.
- Star rating: Four
- Cast: Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor
- Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
- Writer: Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina
- Music: Kristen Anderson-Lopez (‘Remember Me’) Miguel Bezeanilla
- Duration: 104 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?