Pixar is back – the bold, creative Coco washes away the bland taste of The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3. While not quite as clever as Inside Out or Wall-E, Coco manages to tell a family-friendly story centered entirely around death, one that reflects on the legacy we leave behind.
But before I sing the film’s praises, I need to rant about the short at the beginning. I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed that Pixar always plays a cute little short before the movies start, which are always impressively innovative, and sometimes even better than the flick itself. Well, Coco is preceded by a soulless Frozen spin-off centered around Olaf the irritating snowman. It’s twenty-one minutes long (I felt every second of it), and has, like, fifteen musical numbers, all instantly forgettable.
Even my son, who is a big Frozen fan, kept asking if Coco was actually going to play or if we’d just walked into Frozen 2 by accident. It’s time to let it go Disney (see what I did there?) – even the kids are getting annoyed by Frozenoversaturation.
Anyway, once you make it past the Olaf ordeal, Coco proves to be a pleasant surprise – an emotional, philosophical story of life and death, that despite the gorgeous visuals, doesn’t sugar-coat anything.
Right from the start, both the importance and the potential threat of respecting one’s heritage is highlighted, and proves to be a poignant theme. Our young protagonist Miguel yearns to play the guitar, but his artistic urges are severely repressed by his family, who hold a bitter grudge against all musicians, passed down through the generations.
The titular Coco is actually Miguel’s great-grandmother, a gloriously rendered, impossibly ancient creature clinging on to her final days of life, along with the scattered remains of her memories. Her father abandoned her to pursue a musical career, and to this day, the family has not forgotten the betrayal.
On Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), Miguel seizes a chance to steal a guitar from a deceased ancestor, and is immediately plunged into the afterlife, where he must receive a blessing from said ancestor to return home, and pursuit his passion for music.
As Miguel traverses the afterlife, he learns the importance of leaving a legacy behind, for to be forgotten by the living imposes another death sentence, and nobody knows if there even is a second afterlife beyond the first.
It’s pretty heavy stuff. But there isn’t any hint of gothic gloom surrounding this afterlife; it’s a cheerful, misshapen shantytown populated by decorated skeletons, and luridly colored alebrijes, the creatures that guide the souls of the deceased.
The first glimpse of the overpopulated afterlife is jaw-dropping, but during the second act, the movie slows down somewhat. Funnily enough, the skeletons aren’t as interesting to look at as Miguel’s fleshy family, and the masses of bones and fairy lights start to fade into the background.
It’s at this point that I noticed the younger children in the theatre were growing bored. Pixar always includes plenty of details for the adults to enjoy (thankfully), and Coco definitely leans toward older viewers, more than usual. Children younger than six years old might find it hard to relate to the majority of Coco, and the fact that there isn’t an excess of humor doesn’t help keep the little ones in their seats. But things pick up again toward the end, and the finale is another bittersweet, Pixar patented tear-jerker.
Younger children might not be that as entertained as you, but Coco is the best animation for kids I’ve watched since Kubo and the Two Strings. For a child struggling to understand the death of a grandparent, or even a beloved pet, this movie offers an in-depth introspection on what it means to live a life to the fullest, and how memories can keep the deceased from disappearing forever.
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