Animation studio Pixar’s latest production Coco is a familiar yarn woven with good-tempered warmth and imagination. Like numerous Pixar films, Coco is an insistent ode to family values that is narrated through a precocious child on a life-altering quest. The template is familiar, but the movie is elevated by rich and imaginative animation and production design, charming characters, and themes of forgiveness and redemption.
The production overcame early criticism of cultural appropriation by attuning itself to the sensitivities of its geographical and cultural setting. Lee Unkrich’s film, which has been co-written and co-directed with Alfred Molina, takes place in Mexico against the backdrop of the annual Day of the Dead ritual. Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) struggles between his love for singing and guitar playing and the ban on music imposed by his great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) after her musician husband abandoned her and her young daughter Coco. The ban has endured through the generations, but Miguel is increasingly unable to resist the tug of his vocal chords.
A mishap lands Miguel in the netherworld, imagined as a cross between a Mexican-themed vertiginous Disneyland. As Miguel tries to find his way back to the world of the living, he meets his ancestors and other spirits who transform his fortunes.
One is the legendary singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), whom Miguel idolises, and the other is the trickster Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is in danger of disappearing without anybody to remember him. The theme of paying homage to the departed, which the Day of the Dead celebrates, is powerfully rendered by Hector’s friend Chicarron, who fades away because he has nobody left in the living world to mark his memory.
Journeys between earth and the afterlife have been previously explored with greater philosophical heft by Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) and Travis Knight’s lovely Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Coco is lighter on the soul, treating Miguel’s journey into the netherworld as a happy adventure involving kooky characters, marvelously animated skeletons and a giant flying cat that represents the alebrije, or mythical creatures featured in Mexican folk art traditions. The movie is bursting with warm colours and warmth, and even though the music is not up to scratch, the Mexican setting is a welcome relief from Pixar’s usual landscapes.