Kernel Rating (out of 5): (4.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 109 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. The latest from Pixar shares with viewers the nuances and details of the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, and so a lot of that holiday’s imagery is present, including skulls and skeletons, and there are themes about what happens to you after you die and after you are forgotten by the living. Also a subplot that reveals a character’s death may not have been an accident; a character who, in her very old age, may be suffering from dementia; the young boy protagonist lies, steals, and says some very hurtful things to his family; adult characters drink; and an implied joke about women’s breasts.
Pixar expands its world view with ‘Coco,’ a vibrant, emotionally resonant animated film that educates viewers about Mexican Día de Muertos traditions while sharing a story about the importance of family love and creative fulfillment.
By Roxana Hadadi
The classic cinematic idea “There’s no place like home” is adapted gorgeously and movingly with Pixar’s latest film, “Coco.” Set in Mexico and focused on one family’s history and future during the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, “Coco” continues Pixar’s tradition of combining vibrant, detailed animation with nuanced and impactful emotional themes.
As Pixar’s first original film in the first two years, since 2015’s “The Good Dinosaur” but following more recent sequels “Cars 3” and “Finding Dory,” “Coco” establishes itself almost immediately. No other Pixar films have been quite like this: The cast of Hispanic and Latino actors is aligned with the material (a criticism leveled at another animated Day of the Dead film, “The Book of Life,” which was nevertheless quite good); the spirit animal alebrije are folksy yet majestic; and there is a strong emphasis on music, particularly mariachi, salsa, and flamenco.
On the one hand, Disney tried to trademark the term “Día de los Muertos” during the development of the film; on the other, after they withdrew their request, they created a cultural consultant group to better reflect Mexican culture in the film. “Coco” feels authentic, and although there are a few odd details (who signed off on major cultural icon Frida Kahlo making an appearance?), this is a film that should broaden the horizons of its viewers.
“Coco” is the story of 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), living with multiple generations of his family, including his strict grandmother, in the small (fictional) Mexican village Santa Cecilia. For years, the family has had a ban on music—but of course, music is all Miguel cares about, especially his idol, the late singer-songwriter, guitar player, and film star Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), whose life was tragically cut short when he was crushed during a performance by a giant bell.
When Día de Muertos rolls around, all Miguel wants to do is sneak out and perform at a local talent competition, where he can unveil his secret skills on guitar that he’s developed by practicing Ernesto de la Cruz’s material. But his family wants him to stay home, where they have set up an ofrenda for the holiday—an alter on which a collection of photos of deceased family members, food for them, and other offerings are placed, so that when the dead pass into the living world on the special Día de Muertos holiday, they will know they are loved and remembered by their descendants.
There’s always been something a little curious about the Rivera ofrenda—a photo of Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco, in which the face of her father, who abandoned the family years ago, is torn out. Nevertheless, Miguel can’t stand another day pretending he wants to follow the family tradition of shoemaking instead of pursuing music, and his desire explodes to the surface when he fights with his relatives and proclaims “I don’t want to be in this family!” Instead, Miguel decides to “seize your moment,” as Ernesto de la Cruz always said—but somehow, he ends up in the Land of the Dead, running into all of his relatives who are preparing to enter the Land of the Living for Día de Muertos.
To get back out, Miguel needs a blessing from a family member, but Coco’s mother, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach), refuses to send him back without the condition that Miguel quit music. So Miguel teams up with Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal), whom he saw trying to sneak into the Land of the Living: If Héctor helps Miguel at least meet his mentor, Ernesto de la Cruz, while he’s in the Land of the Dead, when Miguel returns to the Land of the Living, he’ll put Héctor’s photo on his family’s ofrenda so he can finally travel back. Otherwise, Héctor will be forgotten—he could disappear forever—and if Miguel doesn’t get back to the Land of the Living before daybreak, he’ll be stuck in the Land of the Dead forever.
Plot-wise, “Coco” is a little like “Up,” with an adventure into an unknown place as its major narrative driving force, a dog sidekick, and an unlikely friendship between a lonely child and a lonely adult. And “Coco” effectively develops its primary themes (the importance of family traditions, the passion of artistic creation) in the first 15 minutes or so before Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead, so that his time there can be spent reconnecting with old relatives, admiring the beauty and power of the alebrije, and marveling at the customs and curiosities of the dead. Like “Inside Out,” there is a lot of stuff here that is simultaneously emotionally engaging and soul-crushing (let us never forget Bing Bong), but “Coco” also has so much to look at—Frida Kahlo’s art, the omnipresence of sugar skulls, the glowing petals of the Aztec marigold flowers that hold special significance on the holiday—that parents and children will both be entertained. Such is the Pixar way.
“Coco” does feel a little less laugh-out-loud funny than other “Pixar” films (most of the humor here comes from Héctor and the elasticity of his skeleton), and Miguel has some moments in which he acts truly awful (“It’s my life, you already had yours!” he yells at Mamá Imelda). But those are slight deterrents from what is another stellar Pixar offering in “Coco,” a film that honors Mexican cultural traditions while showing the beauty of home.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.