In the uplifting and ultimately moving new Disney/Pixar animated fantasy, Coco, there’s a small village in Mexico called Santa Cecilia. In that village lives a small boy called Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), and Miguel dreams of becoming a musician. But there’s a problem. While the twelve-year-old can play the guitar, his family has a ban on music. Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on the family to pursue a life of writing songs and playing the guitar. He was never seen again. Miguel has to practice in secret.
What sounds like a harsh punishment for something a relative did generations ago, especially when living in the middle of a town surrounded by the sound of music, it’s surprising that all other family members seem quite happy with their lives void of song, except, of course, Miguel. It’s even harsher when Miguel’s grandmother finds the boy’s guitar and smashes it, forcing the boy to steal the classic guitar of a departed idol. But something unusual happens. By stealing that instrument, Miguel is suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead. It’s the time of the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, and Miguel is about to experience it from the point of view of the living.
Surprisingly, the film takes its time to get to where it’s heading. There’s a lot of business to cover before Miguel finds himself down under. Often, the kind of conflicts the young boy faces with his family, the family history, and the boy’s desire to play in a local village talent contest is enough to fill a full synopsis, but in Coco, that’s only the beginning. What follows once the boy walks among the skeletal spirits of his departed family members in the afterlife is a colorful, eye-popping adventure that fast becomes a feast for both the eyes and the ears. Lose yourself in Miguel’s adventure and there’s a very real sense of being transported in the way only cinema can achieve.
The adventure in the Land of the Dead takes Miguel through a fully immersive city full of life and color that virtually pops off the widescreen. Watching the film in 3D may do some of that eye-popping work for you, but see it in regular 2D and the colors will look brighter, the scenery and characters more detailed, and the overall admiration of the animated art more satisfying. There’s become a point in computer animation where scenery appears incredibly real. Whether some of the streets or buildings in the design are photoreal or not is difficult to tell, but when characters walk a cobbled road or enter a building, it often looks as though they are passing or walking upon something tangible.
There’s a lot that happens to Miguel, and there’s a lot he’ll learn about love, family, the power of music, and about respect for the departed. What may seem oddly macabre to outsiders about Day of the Dead proves fascinating and touching once understood. “Reach for that dream,” he is told by his departed idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), “Hold it tight, and make it come true.”
The skeletons of Coco (the name belongs to Mama Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother) are warm-bodied creatures with heart that teach Miguel what it is to be alive. There’s a chance that those who live away from the influence of the Mexican culture and its folk art may immediately think back to 2014’s animated feature, The Book of Life. Like Coco, the celebrated, spiritual holiday and an adventure in the Land of the Dead were central to what happened. In some respects, without having both films playing side by side, Coco, with its bright, festive colors of the skeletons, might even look the same, but further comparisons would be unfair. In Southwestern states, pictures, figurines, and artifacts of the Day of the Dead are prevalent, but less so almost everywhere else. There are many stories to be told with the Mexican holiday as a backdrop, and to always compare every new one with the first one you saw and then dismiss it as a copy is to do yourself a disservice. Make no mistake, Coco is anything but a copy.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)