Coco is the latest collaboration between Disney and Pixar, and whilst it’s been on general release in many countries since the end of last year, it’s only just turned up in the UK. I’ve been excited about this film for a while now, given that its theme is based on the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead.
For those not familiar with the Day of the Dead, it is a time where families gather in graveyards, covering the tombs of their dear departed with happy photos, candles and colourful flowers. The idea behind this occasion is that people celebrate the lives of their relatives, remembering the good times from their lives and to ensure that although dead, they are not forgotten. If I have misrepresented the idea, apologies, I am no expert, but this is how I understand it.
This is the set-up for Coco, and the ideas behind the Day of the Dead are nicely sketched out in the film’s opening segment. We get to meet twelve-year-old Miguel, and learn the reason why music is banned in his family: his great-great-grandmother’s heart was broken when her husband abandoned her to pursue a life in music. This is far from ideal for young Miguel, given that he wants to grow up to be a musician like his idol, the late Ernesto Del la Cruz (think a Mexican Elvis – complete with white suit, love songs and iconic movie appearances).
Miguel’s visit to the land of the dead starts when he steals a guitar from De la Cruz’s mausoleum, and the would-be musician must return home before dawn or face becoming the land’s latest permanent resident. He can’t get home unless he receives a blessing from a dead ancestor, and teaming up with dead musician Hector, he sets out to find a way home.
Coco is a triumph of animation and music – you’d expect nothing less from a Pixar film. The film is full of jaw-dropping vistas, like the marigold bridge linking the land of the dead with the real world, the palatial residence with the shimmering blue guitar-shaped swimming pool or the simple wooden jetties that Hector and his fellow forgotten souls call home. In recent years, we’ve come to expect a hyper-real level of detail in our animated characters, and Coco more than passes muster in this respect; I often found myself gazing in awe at the textures of Hector’s skeleton face. The songs complement these vivid scenes nicely, and if this was all that Coco had to offer, it would still be a very good film. What makes it truly outstanding is the story that unfolds against this stunning melange of colour and sound; the writing is both exceptional and original, keeping the viewer gripped until the final emotional scene. In an age of never-ending sequels and tired remakes, prospective screenwriters should be forced to watch films like Coco to see how a good story should be told.
I mentioned Día de Muertos at the start of this review, but this is not the only Mexican tradition that the film pays homage to. It showcases traditions such as the marigold-strewn ofrendas (altars), alebrijas (fantastical colourful creatures made out of paper mache or carved from wood), the skulls (calaveras) that are symbolic of the celebration are everywhere in the film and one character even wears the iconic green shirt of the Mexican national football team.
I read with interest that Coco’s director, Lee Unkrich, got the inspiration for the film during a family visit to Walt Disney World’s Epcot centre in 2011. I have visited the pyramid that hosts the Mexico pavilion many times, so I can see where he is coming from – above is a photo of the market stall displaying the painted skulls that I took last year.
I can’t recommend Coco highly enough – it’s flawless on a technical level and it’ll take one hell of a story to outclass this masterpiece when the “best of the year” lists are drawn up in December.