Pixar’s once-peerless reputation has of late taken a knock thanks to a string of so-so sequels and the transparently commercial Cars trilogy. But anyone who’s been keeping the faith will feel richly rewarded by this exquisitely rendered musical fantasy set in the Land of the Dead. The studio’s finest feature since 2015’s Inside Out, Coco is a return to the conceptually brilliant adventures that powered the studio’s pre-Toy Story 3 output, even if the rigorous adherence to a well-worn formula means it’s not quite top-tier Pixar.
Living in a small Mexican village, 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming a musician, but is forbidden by his family. Sensing a chance to prove his talent during the Day of the Dead show, Miguel borrows the guitar of legendary performer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) – a man Miguel believes to be the father of his great-grandmother Coco – but is cursed and sent to the Land of the Dead for his troubles.
Returning home requires his family’s blessing, so with the help of skeletal stranger Hector (Gael García Bernal) Miguel sets off in search of Cruz before he’s trapped for good.
Already Mexico’s highest grossing film of all time, Coco’s depiction of a culture largely neglected by mainstream Hollywood strikes an enchanting chord. Ofrendas – shrines dedicated to the memory of deceased loved ones – take on mythical importance; while alebrijes – eye-popping neon spirit animals – are a continual source of amusement and amazement.
As for the all-important music, Coco’s ditties don’t disappoint. Written by co-director Adrian Molina and Frozen duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the songs are a delight, particularly the dangerously addictive ‘Un Poco Loco’.
More dazzling than delightful is Coco’s gorgeous underworld. Spooky but not scary, the city is one of Pixar’s most visually astonishing creations. Populated by oddly adorable goofball skeletons, the bags of bones are entertaining company, and personable enough that they’re unlikely to frighten young ’uns.
More conceptually terrifying is the idea that in the Land of the Dead, continued existence depends on being remembered. Fade from memory in the real world and you disappear into nothingness on the other side – a fate literally worse than death.
Coco’s world is built on a series of interlinking rules like this that just about cohere, but its script strains against its own internal logic. Miguel’s entire family, for example, have an implausible zero-tolerance policy on even listening to music. And though impeccably constructed, the story feels so comfortably within Pixar’s wheelhouse that it borders on the mechanical, hitting all the expected beats precisely when you expect them.
Whether intentional or not, Coco also remixes several of the studio’s greatest hits. Miguel pursuing his dreams against his family’s wishes echoes Ratatouille’s desire to cook, while his ritual of retiring to the attic to watch Ernesto de la Cruz films is a straight lift of WALL•E’s nights in with Hello, Dolly!
But there’s no question these devices work, Coco hitting emotional highs that rival Up and Toy Story 3 for Kleenex count. If Inside Out’s message to embrace sadness felt powerful and profound, Coco opts for a more conventional lesson – family first – but one that’s no less moving.